so passiflora

IMG_7922Is there anything more sumptuously psychedelic than the passion fruit? The blooms are otherworldly and hypnotic; the fruit an elusive blend of tangy, floral and sweet. The leaves, stems and flowers of certain varieties are used in herbal medicine for their calming properties, and it’s also rumored to be an aphrodisiac…need I say more?

I recently attended a fascinating presentation on passion fruit by Jorge Ochoa, director of the Horticulture Program at Long Beach City College, and hosted by the Los Angeles chapter of the California Rare Fruit Growers. Jorge, a self-described “fruit monkey,” walked us through some of the many varieties of passion fruit, providing us with helpful tips on which ones have the best flavor and how to grow them here in Southern California. Here is what I learned.

Passion fruit are native to South America and in the late 19th and early 20th century their cultivation became popular in Australia and Hawaii.  The name derives from the custom of Spanish missionaries referring to the flowers as “Flor de las cinco lagas” or flower of the five wounds (of Christ fame) and hence – passion – or capacity for suffering. In locales such as Ecuador, Mexico, Brazil and Columbia, they are known to grow rapidly in clearings and along roadways. In Southern California you can find them growing along fences and walls, up trees and in containers. Their intricate flowers are only open for one day(!) and are typically pollinated by our friends the carpenter and bumble bee.

Here, the most common purple skinned variety of passion fruit is known as Passiflora edulis. Once mature, this plant can easily produce over 200 fruits in one season! As for growing them, Jorge stressed that passion fruit are not picky. They can grow in average soil and don’t require extensive care or watering. If starting from seed, it’s best NOT to buy them online and instead he recommends simply planting seeds fresh from the fruit. To propagate, cuttings of about 3-5 inches in length (at least 3 nodes) can be taken in spring and rooted in soil. As a vine, your plants will definitely need some kind of trellis or support to trail onto, and once mature they’ll also benefit from pruning to encourage growth. As for harvest, ideally fruit should be left on the vine to ripen and picked from the ground once they fall naturally to get maximum sweetness. They will not ripen if picked green!

Jorge has travelled extensively to sample and document passion fruit- a fruit “treasure hunter” if you will. So not only were we treated to a slideshow of some truly amazing passion fruits he’s cataloged, but we got the skinny on the most tasty varieties. His rating system consisted of the following:

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And my favorite part of the lecture was sampling fruit, of course! We tried the Passiflora caerulea first. These are known as “common blue” and have softer, orange skin and deep red pulp.

I was curious about these as I’ve seen them around, but had this feeling they might fall into the “yuck” category. And yep, as suspected, they are no good! So if it’s taste you are interested in, save yourself the trouble and skip these.

The other sample we tried was the Passiflora actinia. This variety has a small, yellow fruit (see below photo of yellow rind) and rather tasty pulp. These can bear fruit twice a year – in early spring and fall. I kept the seeds from this one and planted one to see what would happen. Lo and behold, about a week later it germinated, so we’ll see how goes…We also got to nibble on a couple purple skinned varieties that I couldn’t catch the name of, but they were quite good! IMG_8142

The lecture was wrapped up with Jorge’s list of the best tasting (super yum) varieties. They are as follows:

  • Passiflora edulis
  • Passiflora quadrangularis
  • Passiflora serrulata
  • Passiflora laurifolia
  • Passiflora elegans
  • Passiflora ligularis
  • Passiflora ambigua
  • Passiflora edulis
  • Passiflora tarminiana
  • Passiflora mollisima
  • Passiflora alata
  • Passiflora maliformis
  • Passiflora nigradenia
  • Passiflora actinia
  • Passiflora sidaefolia
  • Passiflora nitida

Here is a video of Jorge’s other Passiflora lecture – this one focused on the flowers!

And now I would like to finish up this post with a little celebrity star power and a recipe. A while back I was recovering from a bad cold and had finally dragged myself out of the house and into my nearby health food store. I was dazed and wandering around the produce aisle and out of the corner of my eye caught glimpse of a man with stunning cheekbones in all black. Trying not to stare I realized that this petite, overdressed gentleman was none other than the inimitable Crispin Glover. And what did he have in his cart? One thing: a plastic bag FULL of passion fruit. Bestill my heart.

Passion fruits are a little stingy with their tropical membrane and if you have to buy them, they aren’t cheap. However their flavor is quite strong so a little can go a long way. I try to either savor them as is, or stretch that flavor by making an aqua fresca. Here is a simple recipe:

  • Cut fruit in half and scoop out the flesh (including seeds) into a blender or food processor. 
  • Blend in the blender for about 1 minute – not too long, you don’t want the seeds to get totally pulverized, just enough time to separate the pulp from the seeds.
  • Pour liquid through a sieve to strain out the seeds.
  • Add water in a 1:3 ratio (1 part juice to 3 parts water) and mix in simple syrup to taste.

*It also isn’t hard to find frozen passion fruit pulp in local markets like JONS. I’ve used the Goya brand and it’s not half bad. This can be mixed up just by adding water and simple syrup. Delicious as-is or you can use it as a mixer. Cheers!