The Amazon rainforest is filled with beautiful flowering plants. In addition to orchids and Heliconia, many of the Amazon’s most colorful flowers are Passiflora.
Passiflora is a highly diverse genus of more than five hundred flowering plants, commonly known as passion flowers or passion vines. Most Passiflora are vines, which employ tendrils to climb and twine themselves around larger species of rainforest flora. Other Passiflora take the form of shrubs or trees. Across the genus, Passiflora may be either woody or herbaceous.
Most members of the Passiflora genus are Neotropical species, and across their broad range these plants can be found in Mexico, Central America and South America. A few other members of the Passiflora genus are found in the United States, Southeast Asia and Oceania.
With their bright colors and complex, delicate structures, passion flowers are among the plants of the rainforest that give most pleasure to tourists and travelers who visit the Amazon. It is their unique form which gives passion flowers their name. Their structure includes colorful emerging thorn-like components, which Jesuit missionaries, who were the first Europeans to study these remarkable plants, likened to the crown of thorns said to have been worn by Christ during his final sufferings and crucifixion, over a period of days known collectively as the Passion of Jesus. Other parts of the passion flower plant were said by the Jesuits to represent other details of Christ’s crucifixion, including the leaves, which they likened to the lance that pierced Christ’s side.
In the forests of South America, including the tropical forests of southeastern Peru where we invite travelers to experience our conservation based sustainable ecotourism model, passion flowers can be seen in a variety of colors, ranging from white to bright red.
Most passion flowers rely on insects or birds for pollination. These organisms move pollen grains from the anther (the pollen producing organ) of one flower to the receptive part of the carpel or pistil (stigma) of another, thereby enabling reproduction. Most of the pollinators involved in the life cycle of Passiflora are insects, although in the case of at least one Passiflora species, pollination is achieved with the aid of bats. In this case, the plant flowers at night, and its flowers produce a strong scent and are white, because it does not require bright colors to attract its nocturnal pollinator.
The rainforest creatures that visit passion flowers include hummingbirds, and even monkeys, lemurs, squirrels and opossums. By moving from one bloom to another, and from one plant to another, all these animals can act as pollinators for passion flowers and other flower-producing and fruit-bearing plants. Those passion flowers that rely on birds for pollination produce abundant nectar and tend to have red petals.
To attract insects such as butterflies, bees, wasps or some species of ants, in addition to brightly-colored petals some passion flowers produce a strong scent which attracts specific insect pollinators that will bypass other flowers of the forest and hone in on a single passion flower species, thereby ensuring the success of that individual species.
In addition to color and scent, in order to increase their effectiveness some passion flower species employ sticky hairs that trap insects long enough to ensure the transfer of the pollen that adheres to the surface of the visitor’s body.
Most species of passion flower produce an edible fruit, usually elongated and between 5 and 20 centimeters in length (2 to 8 inches). Passion fruit is cultivated throughout much of South America, and the juice made from passion fruit is often served at juice stands in typical produce markets. In Peru and Bolivia, the aromatic banana passionfruit is known as tumbo, and “tumbo con leche” (passionfruit with milk) is a popular drink served at market stalls.