When I was given the tiny, black seeds of a maypop a few years ago, I was warned: This plant will absolutely, without question, take over your garden. I heeded the warning to an extent, but I was sure I could manage my plants. After all, could this vine really be such a bully? And, in the ensuing years, has it actually taken over? Turns out, yes, it could; and, yes, it has. This fruit-bearing vine has colonized every square inch of my garden. Yet I’ve never once regretted growing the plant, and that’s for one very simple reason: Maypop vines produce the most beautiful flowers in the world.
Maypop (Passiflora incarnata) — also known as passionflower or passion vine — belongs to a mostly tropical botanical group called the Passifloraceae. The most famous member of this group is the tropical passionfruit (Passiflora edulis), an important commercial crop in many countries. Maypops, however, are native to the temperate, southeastern United States. You can find them growing in the wild as far north as southern Illinois and Indiana, and as far west as Kansas and Oklahoma. I wasn’t sure if the plant would survive at my home in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, but it’s thrived and proven its vigor in our climate. The perennial vine climbs via tendrils and can reach up to 20 feet in a single season, and its large, three-lobed leaves are ornamental and lush.
But there’s more. The flower bears an edible fruit that tastes quite similar to the tropical passionfruit, a flavor that’s both sweet and pleasantly tart. Wild types can vary in quality, but the fruit I’m growing happens to be excellent, without any off-putting sourness or funk. The largest individual fruit I’ve grown was the size of a tennis ball and weighed 2 1/2 ounces.
To have the ability to grow a tropical-tasting fruit on a gorgeous flowering vine in temperate Pennsylvania is almost too good to be true.
Calling it the most beautiful flower in the world will surely invite debate. But once you’ve seen it, you’re likely to agree. When I saw my first flower in bloom, I was forced to interrupt the conversation happening in my backyard. “My passionflower is blooming!” I shouted to my guests. I’ve been teased about this outburst for years.
Its large, purple blooms, which are up to 2 inches wide, appear like ornaments on the vine — a circular pattern of lavender and white thread-like appendages cover thick, white petals. Like a partially woven silk cloth, it’s a work of art. A subtle fragrance scents the patio when several dozen are in bloom.
Although it does indeed elicit passionate admiration, the Passiflora genus was actually named for the Passion of Christ. Spanish Christian missionaries looked at this flower and saw in its botanical construction a rich symbolism for the last days of Jesus Christ, and specifically the crucifixion.
However, the common name is derived from the Algonquian maracock or mahcawq. Native Americans have grown maypops for centuries, and they were likely selecting for large and delectable fruits. According to ethnobotanist Dr. Kristen J. Gremillion, archaeological evidence suggests Native Americans increasingly grew maypops as societies became more agricultural and were domesticating other native food crops. In the early 1600s, English colonist William Starchey observed that, “in every field where the Indians plant their corne [sic] be cart-loads of them.” But according to Gremillion, maypop likely existed in a sphere between wild and domesticated. “It may have been planted as well as harvested,” she wrote in The Journal of Ethnobiology, “but it’s equally likely that maypops increased in abundance by invading gardens, and the plants were encouraged because of their usefulness.”
Over the centuries, maypop has fallen out of favor. According to Renewing America’s Food Traditions, a book promoting the endangered foods of North America, “Maypop’s popularity has not yet recovered from the collateral damage of the colonial period.” Dr. Eric Stafne, a fruit crops specialist with Mississippi State University, says the plant’s reputation has been sullied. “It has some stigma of being a weed,” he says. And while I can attest to that, I’m also in agreement with Stafne that the fruit is ripe for revival. “It’s something that has potential,” Stafne says. “I’m excited about it.”
How to Grow Maypop
My maypop bonanza began with a single seed started in a small pot in a south-facing window. After the seedling grew a few inches, I set it out in a flower bed. It grew well that first year, rising far above the tomato cage I’d given it to climb. The plant died back in late fall, so I marked the space where it grew and planned to watch for its emergence next spring.
Not only did it sprout from that same place, but shoots popped up everywhere within a 10-foot radius. Every year, that radius grows via a robust root system. The vines are less productive in the shade and have thus far refrained from growing under or over my pawpaw and magnolia trees.
Although the root system has colonized my garden, I’m able to control the plants (for the most part) by weeding. The young shoots are easy to remove, and they pull from the ground with little resistance. And if I’m careful to pull a shoot with roots attached, I can pot it up to be grown elsewhere, or to give to a friend.
I’ve moved maypops to trellised locations throughout my garden, including a fence covered half in Virginia creeper and half in maypop. I’ve also trained the vine to grow up the back of my brick house with the help of some upcycled wire mesh. The maypop reaches the roof by late summer, but it’s reluctant to grow any farther. The plant may have reached its pinnacle, or, as I suspect, it rejects the heat of my black, rubber roof. And because the vine climbs with tendrils, not root hairs or other invasive mechanisms, maypop is unlikely to cause much damage to the wall’s mortar. Meanwhile, the brick provides a heat source to keep the vines alive — and fruiting — later into autumn.
You can grow maypops in containers, and if you’re weary of the plant getting out of control, this might be your best choice. The plants don’t thrive in small pots, so a large container — think whiskey barrel — would be best. Maypops generally won’t need to be fertilized, but container-grown specimens might.
Pollinators and Competitors
In addition to human admirers, maypop flowers attract a riot of pollinators — like a dinner bell announcing suppertime — including bees, butterflies, and various moths. Bees of all kinds visit the flowers, including native bumblebees and honeybees, but the large carpenter bees seem to be the most efficient pollinators, brushing against the flower’s stamens while feasting on its nectar. This is a good thing, because individual flowers aren’t self-fertile. I’ve even witnessed carpenter bees wrestle each other for the exclusive rights to a single flower. The benefits of attracting pollinators are well known to any serious gardener. But ecological benefits don’t stop there. Passiflora is also a larval host for several butterflies, including the Gulf fritillary butterfly and the zebra longwing (a denizen of the tropics and southernmost portions of Texas and Florida).
The mammals of my neighborhood covet the fruit. If I’ve left any on the ground overnight, I’ll enter my garden in the morning to find fruit completely cleaned of pulp and seed. In the wild (and in my neighborhood, I suppose), these meals result in dispersed seed. To ensure I get my own harvest, I make sure to check the vines for ripe fruit each evening. If one happens to fall in the night, the nearest opossum will eat it, and so be it.
Picking up maypops from the ground is the simplest way to harvest fruit, and to be sure of ripeness. But there are other clues: Ripe fruit will develop a bright aroma, its color will change from green to yellow, and its skin often wrinkles. Maypop skins are thinner and more fragile than commercial passionfruit, so it’s often advantageous to hand pick. When fruits fall from the vines trellised to my second-story window, they’re prone to burst. If I’m quick to the scene, a cracked fruit is harmless for my own home use and will keep in my refrigerator for several weeks.
In southern regions, maypops will begin to ripen by late July. In my garden, fruits typically start dropping in early September and continue through October. Most years, Pittsburgh’s growing season is long enough to produce plenty of fruit — I harvested more than 100 fruits last year. Growers much farther north might need to be more creative.
Maypops haven’t received much attention from university breeding programs or commercial agriculture, but that’s slowly beginning to change. At Mississippi State University, Eric Stafne has begun a small research project to find exceptional examples from around the country, and to potentially breed maypop with tropical passionfruits for a cold-hardy, commercially viable fruit. “That may take many years,” Stafne admits, “but I’m also interested in ways to use the fruit, or the juice, as a product.”
Spirit Lab Distilling is a small-batch distillery in Charlottesville, Virginia, doing just that. Their Forage Amaro liqueur uses maypop juice, blossoms, and leaves (along with 14 other botanicals) in their version of the traditional Italian liqueur. According to distiller Ivar Aass, amaro is terroir driven: In southern Italy, for example, amaro tends to be citrusy; in northern Italy, more herbal. For his Charlottesville-rooted amaro, Aass turned to the Virginia woods where he found, and fell for, maypops. “It’s such an undervalued fruit, and we have it growing wild, and in abundance,” says Aass.
Maypop leaves have long been brewed as an herbal tea for their sedative properties, and commercially produced tinctures, capsules, and teas are widely produced and available. Maureen Burns of The Herbal Sage Tea Company in Meigs County, Ohio, primarily uses maypop in custom blends, particularly “sleepy-time” teas.
Historically, Native Americans ate maypops fresh, juiced them to make a beverage, and mixed the pulp with cornmeal. According to Renewing America’s Food Trends, “Maypop juice was the major social drink among the Cherokee of North Carolina and was readily offered to any visitors of the farming villages.”
To eat a maypop, simply cut or break it in half and squeeze or spoon the pulp into your mouth. Much like a pomegranate, the interior of a maypop is filled with seeds encased by a sack of pulpy juice. This is what you’re after. You can consume the juice and spit the seeds or swallow them whole.
My favorite thing to do with maypop is to combine it with white rum for a simple, homemade liqueur. To do this, balance a sieve on the rim of a large mixing bowl. Next, take about two dozen maypops, wash or wipe away any dirt, and cut them in half. Scoop out the insides of each half, and toss the seeds and pulp into the sieve. Using the back of a ladle, mash, push, and stir the pile of seeds and pulp to force the juice into the bowl. About 24 maypops will make approximately 10 liquid ounces of pulp. In a bottle, combine your juice with 18 ounces of white rum, shake, and enjoy. I can’t verify the shelf life of this liqueur, but I generally use mine within a year.
I like to use this maypop liqueur in a mixed drink, combining it with a little lime, bitters, sugar, and sometimes seltzer. I usually make this drink in late October, when fresh garden mint might still be available for a garnish. And then, in the deep of winter, I’ll make it again — a homegrown taste of the tropics in cold, cold Pennsylvania.
Andrew Moore lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and is the author of Pawpaw: In Search of America’s Forgotten Fruit, available at the Grit store.