Purple With Passion

TIMES GARDEN EDITOR

On a recent summer evening, there were only two empty folding chairs left at a packed meeting of the Culver City Garden Club. The crowd was there to hear member Jorge Ochoa talk about passion flowers, those amazingly complicated, almost-hypnotic blooms that fascinate gardeners and non-gardeners alike. "No one knows the Passiflora like Jorge," said one member.

Compared with ordinary flowers like daisies, passion flowers look as if they're from another planet, or an alternate dimension. Viewed from above, their intricate and symmetrical construction resembles a fanciful Indian mandala, and they seem to radiate some kind of cosmic energy. The name comes from the sacred symbolism seen in the flower's parts, which reminded the 17th century Spanish discoverers of the Passion of Christ. This is a very metaphysical flower.

At the meeting, Ochoa displayed some of the more unusual kinds of vines on two long tables pushed together. He also brought along some of the many products made from the fruit or flowers. "I wanted people to know theyweren't just pretty flowers," said this major fan of the genus.

He had boxes of herbal remedies--dried flowers and leaves--that are used by some as mild sedatives. A few even believe the plant to be aphrodisiacal, perhaps misunderstanding what the "passion" in passion flower means. The plant's flowers are also used in a number of herbal hair products, including shampoo and hair spray. In the tropics, the fruit, or granadilla , is found in many foods.

Scattered around the meeting room were cut flowers, which Ochoa brought from his home in South-Central Los Angeles. He invited everyone to take a flower or two home, apologizing that most passion flowers stay open for only a day and would be wilted by morning.

At his family's home on Compton Avenue, passion flower vines grow on every fence and wall and completely roof over the frontyard. The stylish, dark-haired 27-year-old was born in Jalisco, Mexico, but has lived in this neighborhood since he was 9. He discovered passion flowers at a sister-in-law's home in Culver City, but he found his second variety in his own neighborhood and a third a few blocks away.

He went to the Arboretum of Los Angeles County in Arcadia to see more but found that his collection of three was larger than its collection of one. The arboretum library did find him an authoritative book. "Passion Flowers" by John Vanderplank (MIT Press, 2000) is the current edition.

That was eight years ago, and though he had no prior knowledge of plants, this intense interest in passion flowers led him to study horticulture for two years at Long Beach City College and two more years at Cal Poly Pomona, where he earned his bachelor's degree in horticulture in 2000. He is currently working as a park manager intern for the Los Angeles parks department.

In college, when he had to choose a plant for a particular project, he always picked a passiflora. If he had a plant anatomy class, Ochoa would slice up a passiflora. For a class on tissue culture, he'd clone a passiflora. "I majored in passion vines," he said with a big grin, "with a minor in plant pathology." He couldn't help adding that he has "a passion for passion flowers."

He's still compiling his "bible" on passifloras. One binder is already 4 inches thick with research papers and notes. He's searched every site on the Web, read every book and aims to know all he can about the genus. And to grow as many as he can lay his hands on.

Ochoa says that Passiflora are native mostly to the cooler, wetter parts of Central and South America--which is why they tend to do better in the less-hot areas of Southern California, like the L.A. Basin. There are isolated species scattered around the world--in Africa, Australia, on our own East Coast and even one in nearby Baja. There are something like 500 kinds, and Ochoa has managed to collect about 60, "with 20 in the mail."

Right after learning about passion, he joined the Passiflora Society International (http:// wwwpassiflora. http:// org ). Only a few kinds are available at nurseries, so he grows most from seeds that he gets from the society's seed bank. He orders about 15 new kinds each time he gets the quarterly newsletter.

Ochoa is interested only in the "species" passifloras, which are the wild, unhybridized kinds. "I really prefer their natural beauty," he says. He does grow one hybrid--the dramatic, frilly cultivar named 'Incense,' whose flowers are among the most beautiful. This perennial can take cold weather and has 2-inch, egg-shaped edible fruit with pulp that is considered tasty.

All his favorites, however, are wildlings, like the Brazilian Passiflora actinia (also sold as P. phoenicea or as "Ruby Glow"), which also happens to be one he highly recommends for neophytes. Dramatic, flaring flowers have a circular mass of slim filaments that are striped purple and white. It looks like something you might see on the Sci-Fi channel, or in a cartoon. He recommends this vine because it "doesn't get too big"--though this is the one that covers his front yard--and it tolerates cold.

Another favorite is P. serratifolia, which also has spectacular flowers with really frilly filaments. It grows right through our winters and is not too big, topping out at 10 to 15 feet.

Two in his garden that enchanted me were P. foetida , which had amazing feathery green bracts around the flowers, like a moss rose or that old-fashioned flower called love-in-a-mist, and P. manicata , which was a striking scarlet color. None of these "sucker."

Suckers are sprouts from the roots that pop up all over the garden, even on the other side of sidewalks and paving. Ochoa suggests growing only kinds that don't have this tendency.

Some of the most common passion flower vines sucker badly. Of course, you could grow them in a pot and keep the roots contained--passion flower vines do great in containers and will even tolerate indoor conditions.

One that can become a pest is the common P. caerulea with the big, orange, edible fruit. It's even seen growing by the side of the freeway. It's the "sweet granadilla" used in many foodstuffs and is often surrounded by clouds of butterflies since the larva of the pretty Gulf Fritillary feeds exclusively on passifloras, this one in particular.

Because most passion flower vines are large, they need something to clamber on--a trellis or a fence (they quickly cover chain link), where they can provide shade or a background for the garden. Twisting tendrils hold them fast.

Many plants can grow to 30 feet long if you let them. Ochoa cuts his back a little every year, just to keep them in bounds and to remove dead growth. He cautions never to cut them back hard, which can be fatal to the plants.

He waters once a week or more but only fertilizes once a year, in spring. The plants prefer humid weather and temperatures that are not extreme. They do better in plain, unimproved, fast-draining alkaline dirt and do not like amended soils. It may take two years for them to start flowering heavily or to produce fruit. But don't worry too much about culture, since Ochoa said "no passiflora is hard to grow."

Most like full sun, but some will grow in shade. Passiflora trifasciata , another of those he recommends for beginners, grows in complete shade against the outside of his family's house. It stays quite small, under 8 feet tall, and it has spectacular leaves that look like dinosaur tracks, colored burgundy and green on top and purple underneath. The flowers are very small, as is the fruit.

So are those on the bizarre Bolivian bat wing passion flower vine, P. coriacea , also grown for its foliage, which is an odd diamond shape that looks like a leaf only in that it's green.

Many leaves have little nectar glands on them that appear to be a pest problem, but he said they are thought to be a defense mechanism. The sweet stuff secreted by these glands attracts ants, which chase off pests, so if you see ants on your vines, don't be alarmed--in this rare case, they're actually helping with the pest control.

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Ochoa will show up to 30 kinds of passion flower plants at the Culver City Garden Club's annual show on July 28 and 29 at the Veteran's Auditorium, 4117 Overland Ave. (at Culver Boulevard), Culver City. Hours are noon to 5 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday.

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