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On gardening: Marveling at passionflowers and the butterflies they attract

September 15, 2014

The purple passionflower, Passiflora incarnata, is seen here at Savannah National Wildlife Refuge. It is native as far north as Illinois and Pennsylvania.

If you are looking for the perfect vine for a trellis or arbor then look no further than the passionflower. Not only will they climb with abandon, but they will adorn your structure with the most exotic flowers on the planet. Depending on where you live, you may even get tasty fruit, but from my perspective they are mandatory for all who love butterflies.

Recently I wrote about monarchs and their absolute dependency on milkweed species. In case you didnít know it, some of the most dazzling butterflies that are seen in the United States must have passionflower vines to exist.

In South Texas butterflies like the Julia heliconian, Erato heliconian and Isabella heliconian are treasured by wildlife enthusiasts who travel by the thousands for the opportunity to photograph them. In Florida and along the east coast to Chesapeake Bay, admirers hope for an appearance of the Zebra heliconian, which floats so gracefully in the air.

But even if you think they are not important to your area, consider butterflies like the Gulf fritillary that reaches as far north as Missouri and the variegated Fritillary that is seen over a much larger area, which will both lay their eggs on passionflower vines.

Since my time as director of the National Butterfly Center in Mission, Tex., I admit to an obsession for butterfly gardening and passionflower vines that host these incredible species of winged beauties.

In October, when I arrived in Savannah for my first day on the job at the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens, a Zebra helconian floated by as if giving me a special welcome. Immediately I knew that somewhere on our 51 acres we had passionflower vines which are the larval host plant for this butterfly.

This yearís growing season revealed large stands of the native Passiflora lutea or yellow passionflower. These flowers are a little larger than a quarter but are just as intricately designed.

This passionflower is native from Texas to Illinois and Pennsylvania, and south to Florida. Like their tropical cousins they, too, attract butterflies, but these arenít the only passionflower vines exhibiting such cold hardiness. The native Passiflora incarnata or purple passionflower has an almost identical native range.

Then there is the blue passionflower known for so much vigor that it amazes some gardeners. Itís rated to zone 7, and yet I hear gardeners in zone 6 saying it is too aggressive. To be honest, passionflower vines are the racehorses of the plant world. The blue passionflower is native to Brazil and Argentina and offers a long blooming season from late spring through fall. Although called blue, it actually has white petals and scores of attractive blue filaments.

Know that most passion vines require good drainage and plenty of sunlight to be prolific bloomers. Our native yellow passionflower, however, thrives in filtered light. Provide a good support structure and keep well mulched. You will find that many have the ability to climb at least two stories high.

Iíve talked of their importance to butterflies. The question to ask yourself is can you tolerate the caterpillars munching on the leaves? All of the butterflies I mentioned above are extraordinarily beautiful. Your tolerance of holes in the leaves or partial leaves will be rewarded with more butterflies. If the holes bother you then consider planting a vine away from the main area of visitation.

The tropical look is hot across the country, but equally so is the backyard wildlife habitat. A passionflower would be the perfect vine in either situation. Talk to your certified nurseryman about these and other great selections.

 

 




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