The Colombian exchange & the passion in passionfruit

If you’re a regular reader you’ll know that ‘tomato’ is one of the few Aztec words that we’ve adopted into English – others include avocado (Persea americana), which is a corruption of the Nahuatl word ahuacatl (for testicle, a reference to the shape of the fruit) and cocoa which derives from cacauais referring to the dried and fully fermented fatty seed of Theobroma cacao. Other fruits grown by the Aztecs including vanilla, paw paw and passionfruit have lost their Nahuatl names. These fruits accompanied a cornucopia of new introductions from the New World to the Old following Columbus’ discovery of the Americas. The so-called Colombian exchange saw the transfer of staples such as maize, cassava and potatoes, spices such as paprika and chili and drugs such as cocaine, quinine and tobacco. Many of these are now considered to characterise their adoptive cultures – who imagines, for example, Italian cooking without the tomato or Indian cooking without chilli?

The Colombian exchange deserves further attention – while we may reflect on where our food is grown (and endeavour to interpret the arcane labelling) there’s little thought about the origins of the species. The passion flower provides an apposite illustration for this oversight. A painting in the Cincinnati Art Museum by Flemish artist Joos Van Cleve of the Madonna and child completed between 1530 and 1535 shows the Virgin holding a passion flower. Over the past century art historians have accepted the passion flower as an alternative for the carnation, present in other similar works from the same artist. However, in 2006 passion and wildflower enthusiast Michael Abrams was alert enough to query how the passion flower had found its way into Van Cleve’s painting. Abrams knew that the symbolism of the passion flower was only alluded to by Jesuit Jose de Acosta in 1590 and wasn’t widely disseminated until the publication of Jacomo Bosio treatise on the Cross in 1610. In the 1530s Van Cleve would never have seen a passion flower let alone known of the symbolism subsequently imbued in the flower. Recent analysis of Van Cleve’s work demonstrates that the passion flower was a later addition concealing the original carnation.

At Easter some analysis of the passion flower’s symbolism is appropriate. All the year round, one of the popular journals edited by Charles Dickens (now all available on-line as one of the Dickens’ bicentenary projects) revisited the story in 1866 under the heading Bosio’s stupendous flower.

“The figure (Bosio) gives us of the passion-flower shows the crown of thorns twisted and plaited, the three nails, and the column of the flagellation, just as they appear on so many ecclesiastical shields and banners. Either the Jesuits and Augustinians of Mexico must have been very indifferent draughtsmen, or they did not hesitate to assist the marvels of the flower by a little traveller’s licence. Bosio proceeds to describe it. ‘The upper petals,” he says, “are tawny (di color leonato) in Peru; in New Spain, they are white, tinged with rose.” (This, no doubt, refers to distinct species.) ‘The filaments above resemble a blood-coloured fringe, as though suggesting the scourge with which Our Blessed Lord was tormented. The column rises in the middle. The nails are above it. The crown of thorns encircles the column; and close in the centre of the flower, from which the column rises, is a portion of a yellow colour, about the size of a reale, in which are five spots or stains of the hue of blood, evidently setting forth the five wounds received by Our Lord on the cross.’ The colour of the column, the crown and the nails, is a clear green (verde chiara). The crown itself is surrounded by a kind of veil, or very fine hair, of a violet colour (di color pavonazzo), the filaments of which number seventy-two, answering to the number of thorns with which, according to tradition, Our Lord’s crown was set; and the leaves of the plant, abundant and beautiful, are shaped like the head of a lance or pike, referring, no doubt, to that which pierced the side of Our Saviour, whilst they are marked beneath with round spots, signifying the thirty pieces of silver”

Bosio’s interpretation was not without detractors – in 1629, John Parkinson, gardener to Charles I, observed, ‘God never willed his Priests to instruct his people with lyes: for they come from the Divell, the author of them‘.

On the other hand Antonio de Leon Pinelo went further and in 1650 published his discovery of the Garden of Eden at a confluence of rivers in Peru, and observed that the passion fruit was, indeed, the one hanging from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. While there are tree-forming passion fruits such as Passiflora parritae, Pinelo’s purported discoveries of the Garden of Eden and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil don’t appear to have been corroborated!


There are over 515 species of passion flowers – mostly found in the New World but surprisingly with 22 species native to Asia including three in Australia

As for growing edible passionfruit in Adelaide success seems a gift to some and elusive to others. Firstly choose a site with a trellis or fence for the passionfruit to climb on and good light – avoid root competition from nearby trees or shrubs. The soil needs to be well-drained in winter and moist enough in summer. Plant in spring – a lamb or sheep’s liver covered with some soil used to be de rigeur in the bottom of the planting hole although pellitised chook manure’s a possible alternative. With any grafted plant remove any growth below the graft, including suckers, using a sharp knife or blade. Mulch after planting and in the first year just take out the top bud to promote lateral growth and as the vine establishes. Pruning, if required, should be done in early spring to remove old dead wood and to let air and light.

Clarence Walter Kelly began experimenting with grafting passionfruit vines in the 1920’s while running the Clarinda Nurseries with his wife Florence in Moorabbin in Victoria. After signficant marketing and success the name ‘Nellie Kelly’ became one of the first plants in Australia to be trade marked in 1958. Perhaps the most popular black passionfruit in Australia, ‘Nellie Kelly’ is typically grafted with Passiflora caerulea as the rootstock and P. edulis as the scion and claims to, ‘… cover an area of six to eight square metres during an eight to 10 year lifespan, producing up to 400 pieces of fruit each season.’ One of my colleagues at the Gardens who lives on the same soils as me achieves exactly this equation! I’m very envious.


Originally published in The Adelaide Review on 2 April 2012.

For more information about the Botanic Gardens of South Australia, visit the website.



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