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Gardening: Grape leaf passionflower an eye-catching and fragrant addition to SC gardens

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passionflower open

Grape leaf passionflower. Provided

Grape leaf passionflower (Passiflora vitifolia) is an eye-catching, prolific tropical perennial in full bloom by April in the Lowcountry.

This passionflower is one of several tropical passionflowers with bright red, scarlet flowers. My plant was a gift that came without a tag, but three-pointed leaves that look like grape leaves revealed its identity. The flowers appear identical to those of two other red passionflowers, Passiflora coccinea and Passiflora miniata.

Another name for grape leaf passionflower is perfumed passionflower, presumably named after the fragrant fruits. My plant hasn’t fruited, since most passionflowers must be cross pollinated with pollen from another plant.

It does, nevertheless, produce a sticky, sweet-scented nectar from small glands at the base of the three triangular bracts that shield the buds, so perfumed passionflower is an appropriate alternate name.

Grape leaf passionflower, like other passionflowers, is a vine that needs a support. My plant came with a three-foot-tall trellis that already was covered by vigorous growth. Like its namesake, grape leaf passionflower has tendrils that will fasten themselves onto other nearby plants by winding around the stems.

The flowers of this passionflower are stunning. "The New Southern Living Garden Book" describes them as “dazzling bright red.” My plant’s flowers are 4.25 inches wide, wider than the 3 inches given by Southern Living or the 3.5 inches given by Wikipedia. Many passionflowers, including grape leaf, have 10 slender petals arranged as two alternating rings of five petals each.

Passionflower was named by Spanish missionaries to South America, who thought the flower parts symbolized the passion (or crucifixion) of Jesus. In the center of the flower, three white-to-pale yellow “knobs,” (botanically, stigmas) resemble the three nails that held him to the cross, one for each hand and one for his overlapped feet. Around them are five shorter T-shaped structures (botanically, stamens) that represent the five wounds to his body in hands, feet, and side. The reddish ring of slender “whiskers” at the base of the petals looks sort of like the crown of thorns.

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What I find most fascinating about grape leaf passionflower is its growth and flowering cycle. I received my plant in early June 2018. What I didn’t realize was that it was near the end of its blooming cycle. When it had only a few more flowers during the summer, I thought it might not be getting enough sun, since all three red passionflowers are native to northwestern South America.

I was puzzled but pleased to see it sprout new side vines the following February. Soon afterwards three to six tiny buds surrounded by larger pale red bracts appeared along each new vine. This year the plant repeated this cycle with the first flower opening on Feb. 28.

On newly opened flowers the petals point downward, gradually rising until they are horizontal. As the flower fades, the petals close again.

Last year my plant produced about 70 flowers. So far this year, it’s had 56 flowers, anywhere from zero to five new flowers per day. On days when the temperature is moderate, say 80 degrees or less, flowers remain open two days, but on hotter days, they last only one day.

Grape leaf passionflower is damaged by temperatures that drop to 32 degrees, so even in the warmest parts of South Carolina it should be grown in a large pot at least 16 inches in diameter. This plant prefers moist, well-drained potting soil, although it quickly recovers if the soil dries out to the point the plant starts to wilt. It will flower in a full or partly sunny spot.

The leaves last about a year and gradually drop during the flowering period. Plants need monthly or bimonthly fertilizing, starting when new growth appears in late winter. The leaves of grape leaf passionflower should be a medium green. Light green leaves are a sign the plant needs fertilizer.

Passionflowers are occasionally browsed by deer who eat the leaves but not the vines.

Anyone who likes red flowers will love this plant.

Anthony Keinath is professor of plant pathology at the Clemson Coastal Research & Education Center in Charleston. His expertise is in diseases of vegetables. He is also an avid gardener. Contact him at tknth@clemson.edu.

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