The Coastal Gardener: The allure of passion fruit

Passion fruit are easy to grow in coastal gardens. The pretty flowers are followed by tasty fruit; guava-like and deliciously sweet/tart - pure ambrosia.
(Ron Vanderhoff, Daily Pilot)

Ten years ago, my daughter Kristin, then just 7 years old, and I were exploring Strybing Arboretum, the famous botanical garden in San Francisco.

There, on a back wall were several enormous passion vines, with flowers of purple, blue, white, red and coral. My daughter was already fascinated with the amazingly intricate flowers, which to this day remain her favorite of all flowers.

But on that summer day in San Francisco I went one step further. I plucked a ripe fruit from a Passiflora edulis and opened it. The fruity, tropical aroma was overwhelming and added another element to her passion flower addiction. I offered her a taste. Not sure at first what to make of the funny looking jelly-like inside, she eventually relented.

That was it. From that point forward, passion fruits have been a regular member of our summer fruit bowl and a fruiting vine has always been in our garden.

Most local gardeners are familiar with ornamental passion vines, knowing them as easy, fast-growing plants that can cover a fence almost before they’ve put the planting shovel back into the toll shed.

The flowers of passion vines are like none other, beautifully intricate, that demand closer inspection by any passerby. But in gardens it is one species, Passiflora edulis, that produces the extra bonus of delicious and fragrant tropical fruit — and lots of it.

If you haven’t tasted a fresh passion fruit, you don’t know what you’re missed. If you’re curious, stop in Gelson’s, Wholesome Choice or Whole Foods this weekend and, with a little luck, you will find a few tucked away in the corner, usually at about $5 to $6 per pound. The fruit is sweetest when slightly shriveled, so don’t be alarmed by their unusual appearance at the market. Luckily, coastal California is the perfect place to grow a passion fruit, and they couldn’t be easier, and a lot less expensive than the market.

The unique flavor of a passion fruit is appealing: a musky, guava-like, deliciously sweet/tart flavor. Passion fruit blends well with citrus, strawberries and other fruits, especially tropical flavors.

My daughter and I simply slice the fruit in half, then scoop out the rich pulp and seeds with a spoon. The seeds are small and edible, but if you prefer, the flavorful juice can be separated from the seeds by squeezing through cheesecloth.

If you like the fruit, and I’m certain you will, then you will want a passion vine in your garden. These are vigorous vines, so the best location is along a sturdy, sunny border fence where the vine can sprawl and grow freely.

Now, during the warm summer, is the perfect time to head off to the nursery to get your fruiting passion vine. When you get there, you may find a few different selections of passion vine or Passiflora, but don’t be distracted by all of these choices.

If you want pretty flowers and tasty fruit, look specifically for the selection Black Knight or Frederick. Both are outstanding, with attractive, large, glossy green foliage. Black Knight is the leading commercial variety and a heavy producer of fruit. Slightly more compact than Frederick, it is probably the variety that you tasted at the produce store. Frederick is a newer variety, bred right here in California with similar, delicious fruit.

Passion fruit care is simple, but annual pruning is a must to keep the vine in bounds and attractive. By pruning the vine hard in late winter or early spring, just before spring growth, it can be kept at a manageable size and still delight you with hundreds of flowers and dozens of fruit.

Flowering is greatest from April to November, but may continue year-round if conditions are right. Flowers self-pollinate and are followed by green fruit, which turns purple when ripe. Fruits usually ripen about 90 days after flowering. Keep the vine well watered and fertilize regularly during our warm summer months.

Harvest the fruits only when they fall from the plant. If the fruit are allowed to wrinkle a bit after collecting, they become even sweeter — pure ambrosia. Passion fruit is low in saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium and high in dietary fiber. Apart from being a rich source of vitamin C it is a great source of iron, and potassium. To store passion fruit for up to three or four weeks keep them in a cool spot.

RON VANDERHOFF is the nursery manager at Roger’s Gardens in Corona del Mar.

Ask Ron

Question: Roof rats are nibbling at my almost-ripe apples and tomatoes, ruining the fruit. What can I do?


Laguna Beach

Answer: Rats can be a real problem during the summer months as they nibble on juicy fruits in search of moisture. Traps can help if you suspect only a few rats and if they can be set safely, away from pets and children. If the branches of a freestanding fruit tree are not in contact with the ground, other trees, walls or fences and “rat guard” will be effective on the trunk of the tree. Otherwise, fruit netting is about your only other option. For small trees and fruits like tomatoes you may be able to encircle the entire tree and cinch the netting tightly at the base. But for larger trees it may be more practical to only put the netting over individual fruit clusters or branches.

ASK RON your toughest gardening questions, and the expert nursery staff at Roger’s Gardens will come up with an answer. Please include your name, phone number and city, and limit queries to 30 words or fewer. E-mail, or write to Plant Talk at Roger’s Gardens, 2301 San Joaquin Hills Road, Corona del Mar, CA 92625.