I DIDN’T PLANT THE VINES that bore them, these sharply sweet, sweetly sour fruits piled in a bowl on my kitchen table. I didn’t ask the vines to come. To be honest, I didn’t know I could ask, didn’t know this tropical fruit’s cousin could roam the neatly planted rows and carefully mulched pathways of my Zone 6b Kentucky garden. But here they are, light-years away from the Zone 13a island where I fell in love with passion fruit. A welcome surprise.
I first met the passion fruit while working and traveling around Puerto Rico. Hanging from neighbors’ metal-slat fences and sold cheap at every roadside stand, the puckery-sweet parcha—or Passiflora edulis, their naturalized species—played heavily into the snacks and drinks of my months-long island visits.
When ripe, a passion fruit’s soft, green-to-yellow skin gives way to a firm, white flesh and small but impossibly crunchy seeds in a gelatinous coating. Scooped out with a spoon or your tongue, these seeds are the beauty of an island home I briefly savored.
The passion fruit in my backyard, Passiflora incarnata, is native to the Southeast United States, and grows rapidly in average soils in full sun or partial shade. They like to be on the fringes of disturbance, on roadways and at the edges of meadows. Their fruits are similar to those I came to love in Puerto Rico, each one a precious portal to delight. Now that I know they’re here, foraging the globes has become part of my morning ritual this time of year: an autumnal egg hunt.
When ripe, passion fruit fall to the ground from their ropelike vines. These fallen fruits are easy to find, but in an effort to collect them all, I also forage for the just-ripe, still clinging fruit hiding under three-lobed, handlike leaves.
Passion fruit vines typically stretch from three to fifteen feet, are evergreen in milder climates, and have extensive root systems. The plants spread by seeds and by rhizomes, meaning next year, my harvest could be even larger, if I let them continue to colonize this space, perhaps even at the expense of the plants I’m actually trying to grow. It’s a struggle—or balance, is the nice way to say it—between the wild and the cultivated, in my garden and in my life. This year, I let them roam and remind me of what it felt like to wander free.
And the flavor, for me, is pure memory. I take a bite and am transported back to my island days.
The passion in Passiflora incarnata was a name Christian invaders gave, and it referred not to lusty pursuits, but rather, heavenly devotion. Each flower lasts for just one day in the heat of summer. In those rare, stunning white blooms decorated with purple fringe filaments and soaring green anthers, these men found symbols of their god’s crucifixion—the narrative of the Passion: ten petallike parts for Jesus’s loyal disciples (excluding Peter and Judas), five stamens for his wounds; knoblike stigmas for the nails; the fringe, a crown of thorns.
I do not share this representation of holy devotion. I find the Cherokee name, ocoee, more agreeable. The Indigenous community has such reverence for these plants’ importance that they named whole regions and waterways in what is now Tennessee after them. To me, passion flowers are pure magic. And when the big, bumbling carpenter bees rummage around, pollinating blooms, I think this is a passion for life itself.
As I break one open on my way back inside, I remember that unripe passion fruit are toxic. All parts of the vine produce cyanide as protection against the insects and animals who would eat them. We larger animals would have to consume a significant amount to feel the effects, but one taste of an unripe passion fruit might convince you they can’t be worth ingesting. But my garden teaches me patience. As the fruit ripens, it loses its cyanogenesis. Its bitterness gives way, and it becomes safe to eat. Just thinking of their tangy sweetness makes my mouth water—the anticipation is nearly as good as the taste itself. And the flavor, for me, is pure memory. I take a bite and am transported back to my island days:
I’m on the top of El Yunque rainforest in Rio Grande, looking down at the entirety of the world below, the Atlantic to the north and what I think is a shimmering glimpse of the Caribbean to the south.
I’m bouncing along in the back of a dump truck in Luquillo with a dozen others, overimbibed and celebrating felicidades along the beachside roadway, appropriating the Puertorriqueña parranda Christmas-caroling tradition while singing along to Feliz Navidad from crackling boombox speakers.
I’m bobbing up and down in the Atlantic Ocean in Isla Verde, held afloat by a man with a multicolored mohawk. If he lets go, I might drown because I am laughing so hard.
I’m awkwardly trying to persuade my white-girl hips to relax and learn how to salsa in a crowded club in Santurce, surrounded by hundreds of sweaty bodies moving to a rhythm I may never find.
I’m on the island of Vieques, off the east coast of Puerto Rico, headed to the bay and fearing for my life in the back of a taxi van, my untethered seat bucking with every hard brake and erratic turn. But soon I will be paddling through serene, dark waters glowing with bioluminescent sea creatures.
I’m mosquito bitten.
I’m alive and exhausted by work and play and pleasure.
The memories contained in the passion fruit’s sour-sweet pulp and crunchy seeds are ever fresh and growing wild. They’re right here in my garden, on my table, in my hand, and in my home in a decidedly not-tropical place. For though Puerto Rico was paradise, it was not quite home, and the excitement of long-term travel eventually gave way to a desire for stability and community. Kentucky is more home, though less paradise. Passion fruit is my sensory bridge.
As autumn deepens and the first frost approaches, I appreciate each day with the fruit in my garden. I want them—the fruits, memories, reminder of my life on the road—to linger, and so I search a little harder to collect every ripening fruit.