“Maypop” is the common name for one of North America’s most delicious native fruits: passion fruit (scientific name: Passiflora incarnata). In this article, we’ll share everything you need to know to find, identify, harvest, grow, and eat this native tropical-flavored delicacy!
Table of contents:
1. Video: Quick look at Passiflora incarnata plants, flowers, and fruit
2. A lifelong love of Passiflora incarnata, a North American native passion fruit
3. All about American passionfruit (history, ID, edible parts, medicinal uses)
4. How to grow your own native passion fruit from seeds or runners
5. How to eat Passiflora incarnata – with recipes!
1. Video: Take a quick look at P. incarnata plants, flowers, and fruit
In the video below, you’ll see native passion fruit (Passiflora incarnata) leaves, flowers, and fruit. Plus, you’ll also see Gulf fritillary butterfly larvae, since this native vine is their host plant and the two are often found together.
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2. A lifelong love of Passiflora incarnata, North America’s native passion fruit
I was fortunate to have parents who encouraged me to go outdoors when I was a kid. Summer days at my parents’ lake house were spent outdoors from morning to night, exploring, fishing, foraging, swimming, and playing with other kids.
In late summer, we’d walk down to an overgrown field in search of ripe “maypops” (our name for the fruit of native purple passion fruit plants). The vines sprawled through the field, climbing over taller plants.
Maypops were easy to spot due to their distinctive leaves, but more so due to their gorgeous, showy flowers. By late summer, fruit about the shape and size of a chicken egg dangled from the vines or ripened and fell to the ground.
My brother and I would eat our fill of the delicious, tangy tropical-flavored fruit. Afterwards, we’d occasionally engage in a maypop battle, throwing the unopened fruit at one another and laughing when one met its target, creating an explosion of pulp and seeds.
Why is it called maypop?
Some say the name “maypop” derives from the plant popping up from the ground each May. Others say it’s due to the pop sound the fruit makes when you accidentally step on it (or hit your sibling with it).
Regardless, decades after my childhood introduction to this plant, The Tyrant and I have now forged an equally passionate relationship with passion fruit up in Greenville, South Carolina, three hours north and west of the family lake house. We grow maypops in our yard and forage them in the wild. Yes, The Tyrant will occasionally hit me with a maypop when I’ve agitated her, but the fruit can still be consumed after impact.
3. All about American passion fruit
“Isn’t passion fruit a tropical plant?” you might be wondering. Yes and no.
There are lots of species of passion fruit, many of which only grow in tropical regions. Perhaps the best known species is Passiflora edulis, native to the tropics of South America.
However, P. incarnata is the non-tropical species of passion fruit native to the eastern U.S. (primarily the Southeast) that produces delicious edible fruits that are roughly the same size as tropical Passiflora edulis.
Common name confusion
In addition to “maypop,” Passiflora incarnata has a couple other common names which you might have grown up using:
- purple passionvine (due to the purple flowers), and
- wild apricot / apricot vine (not because of the fruit’s flavor, but because of the fruit’s size and shape).
What species of passionflower are native to the United States?
In addition to Passiflora incarnata, other U.S. native passiflora species include:
- Birdwing Passionflower (Passiflora tenuiloba) – Edible fruit; native to New Mexico and Texas.
- Corkystem Passionflower (Passiflora suberosa) – Edible fruit; native to Florida and southern Texas.
- Fetid passionflower (Passiflora foetida) – Edible fruit; native to the Southwest.
- Yellow passionflower (Passiflora lutea) – Edible fruit, but very small with subpar flavor. Native to the east coast north to Pennsylvania and west to Kansas. We also see yellow passion fruit growing in our area, Upstate South Carolina.
Native plants perform well in the geographic ranges they’ve adapted to over many millennia. Plus, they tend to be host plants for native pollinators and other species. Depending on where you live, consider planting passion vine species native to your area.
Where do maypops (Passiflora incarnata) grow – what’s their native range?
Maypops primarily grow in the Southeastern United States. However, the plant’s native range extends all the way up to Ohio and Pennsylvania and all the way west to Oklahoma and Kansas.
A sacred plant to America’s indigenous populations
As you might imagine, Native Americans swooned for passion fruit. They also used various parts of the plant medicinally (more on that below).
To the west of us in Georgia and Tennessee is the Ocoee River, a rather unusual sounding name. Its etymology?
The Cherokee word for passion fruit is “u-wa-ga,” and the the area around the Ocoee River was called “u-wa-go-hi,” which translated to “place where the passion fruits grow.” To English speaking ears, this sounded like “o-co-ee,” hence the river’s modern anglicized name.
How did Native American societies use Passiflora incarnata? A USDA NRCS plant guide notes the following:
“The Houma, Cherokee and other Native American tribes used purple passionflower for food, drink, and medicinal purposes. Captain Smith, in 1612, reported that Native Americans in Virginia planted the vines for the fruits. The fruits were eaten either raw or boiled to make syrup. A beverage was made from the fruits by crushing and straining the juice. Sometimes the juice was thickened by mixing it with flour or cornmeal. The young shoots and leaves were eaten, cooked with other greens. The roots were used in an infusion to treat boils, and to “draw out inflammation” of wounds from briers or locusts. Babies were given a tea made from the roots to aid in weaning. The roots were beaten with warm water and used as ear drops to treat earaches. Root infusions were used to treat liver problems. Soaking the crushed roots in drinking water made a “blood tonic.” The plant was also used as a sedative to treat nervous conditions and hysteria.”
How to find and ID maypop passion fruit
If you live in the states shown in the map above, then you have a good shot at finding native passion fruits (from purple passionflower plants) growing in the wild.
The plants typically grow in open, full-sun areas although you can also find them on forest edges growing in part shade. The edges of fields, roadways, and open stream banks are ideal places to find passion fruit vines growing in the summer through early fall. (The plants die back to the ground at first frost.)
Unlike many other early succession/pioneer plants, passion fruit is a perennial that grows back from overwintering roots each year.
Here’s how to identify Passiflora incarnata plants and fruit:
- Growing season – Shoots emerge in late spring. Fruit ripens summer-early fall. Plants die back to the ground at first frost.
- Growth habit – Vines extend up to 20′, either crawling on the ground or climbing vertically atop taller plants. Perennial, so grow in same spot each year, vigorously sending out underground runners.
- Leaves – Three-lobed, lightly serrated leaves are about the size of a human hand. Lobes terminate in points.
- Flowers – Ornate and showy purple and white-yellow flowers about 2-3″ in diameter when open. While in bloom, the flowers are perhaps the easiest way to ID the plant since they’re so distinctive and recognizable.
- Fruit – Green fruits turns to dull green or slightly yellow and crinkly when ripe. Egg-shaped fruit is typical, but we’ve seen vines with smaller, round fruit as well.
To help you with plant ID, here’s a closer look at a maypop leaf, which is visible early in the year before maypop flowers and fruit appear:
What parts of a maypop plant are edible?
Please note that you should NEVER eat any wild plant that you’re not 100% sure you’ve correctly ID’d and know is edible. You should also avoid eating wild plants in areas where pesticides (including herbicides) are sprayed.
Although the ripe fruit is by far the most delicious part of a maypop plant, all other parts of the plant are technically edible too: roots, leaves, flowers, and the tendrils which grow from the leaf axils helping the plant grip and climb. (The tendrils make a beautiful garnish, similar to pea tendrils.)
Since passionflower leaves are an important host plant to Gulf fritillary and zebra longwing butterfly larvae/caterpillars and we’d rather they enjoy eating the leaves than us, we don’t tend to utilize them.
How can you tell if maypop fruit is ripe?
From late summer through first frost is the ideal time to find ripe maypops. When they’re ripe, the fruit feels much heavier than non-ripe fruits on the vine and the skin turns a light green/yellow color.
When maypops are REALLY ripe, they often fall off of the vines and can be found on the ground beneath the vines. At this point, they’re usually very sweet with very little tanginess left.
Here’s our 5-point guide to help you determine if Passiflora incarnata fruit is ripe:
- Did the whole undamaged fruit fall off the plant on its own? It’s ripe. (Even if the skin is still mostly green.)
- Is the fruit skin slightly yellow and slightly crinkly/soft to the touch (even if fruit is still attached)? Ripe.
- Is the fruit still attached to the passion flower vines, but it feels light when you hold it in your hand relative to more mature, heavier fruit on the plant? Unripe.
- When you pop open the skin, does it smell like delicious tropical candy inside with slightly yellow/off-white pulp around the seeds? Ripe.
- When you pop open the skin, does it NOT have much smell and are the seeds/pulp more white in color? Unripe (it will taste bland or sour depending on how undeveloped it is).
Are maypops nutritious or medicinal?
Even though we’ve never seen a nutritional analysis on Passiflora incarnata fruit, it’s likely a good source of vitamin C and A, like its tropical passionfruit cousin, Passiflora edulis.
As mentioned previously, various parts of the purple passionflower plant were used medicinally by Native Americans. There is interesting recent research showing that compounds in the Passiflora incarnata plants serve as a sleep inducer (also aiding in reduced wakefulness) as well as providing better general sleep quality.
The plant’s sleep-conferring benefits may owe to the fact that Passiflora plants contains more gamma-amino butyric acid (GABA) than 20 other known GABA-rich plants. (Read more about GABA.)
Perhaps these botanical compounds are also responsible for another interesting phenomenon we’ve observed: bumble bees and carpenter bees seemingly becoming intoxicated from the passionflower nectar while foraging — sometimes to the point they fall to the ground and die. Similarly, a friend of ours on Instagram told us she consumed a homemade, highly concentrated tea with P. incarnata leaves and spent the remainder of the afternoon in a peaceful, near-psychedelic stupor in her hammock.
I’ve consumed comparatively moderate amounts of maypop leaves and flowers and felt zero physiological effects. As with any medicine, dosage and individual variability matter. If you plan on using this plant medicinally, tread lightly until you get a sense of how if effects you.
4. How to grow maypop passion fruit (Passiflora incarnata) from runners or seeds
Does all this talk of passion fruit have you itching to grow these wonderful plants in your garden? We hope so!
Here are five basic maypop facts you should know before growing maypops:
1. Vigorous climbers
Maypops are vigorous growers and climbers. Each vine can grow 20′ long in a season under optimal conditions. Allowing the plant to climb on a fence or trellis is ideal.
Maypops are perennial plants. They also send out runners far from their original location. You’ll have to pull these runners if they come up in spots you don’t want them. (Or dig them up and transplant them to where you do.)
Maypops grow best and produce the most fruit in full sun (6+ hours of direct sunlight per day). However, we’ve also grown them in partial shade and had them produce fruit as well, albeit with lower yields.
As a native plant, maypops can also tolerate droughts and adverse weather conditions better than many other common garden plants. However, you’ll get the most fruit production if you keep them well-watered and grow them in rich soil.
Unlike some other passionflower species, you can plant just one Passiflora incarnata plant and get fruit since they are self-fertile. However, each maypop flower needs cross-pollination to set fruit and not all flowers will fruit. That’s because they are andromonoecious, with each plant producing flowers that are either: a) perfect/hermaphroditic, or b) functionally male.
How to get your first maypop plants
You can grow new plants by either: 1) digging up rooted runners aka root suckers, or 2) via seed.
Option 1: Growing passion fruit via runners
If you know where a wild passionflower plant is growing in your area, dig up newly emerged shoots/runners starting about 6″ below the soil surface to ensure there are roots on the plant. (Maypops have a stoloniferous rhizome root system which is why they sucker and form dense patches in the same spot.) Bury the runners you dig up in damp well-drained soil (potting soil or seed starting mix) in suitably sized containers, with shoot and/or leaves above soil surface.
Place the container in a shady spot for 1-2 weeks, keeping the soil damp, but not sopping wet (you want to stimulate root growth, not rot the roots). Once the plant begins to vigorously put on new growth, you can transplant it into its final location in your garden.
Option 2: Growing passion fruit from seed
Know where a wild maypop plant is growing? Great!
Collect seeds from overripe fruit in the late summer or fall. Then immediately sow them in the ground about 1/2 – 1″ deep wherever you want them to come up the following spring. (Or put them in small containers with potting soil and leave them outdoors to overwinter and sprout the next spring.)
Just to be crystal clear here: we recommend sowing your maypop seeds as soon as you get them; don’t wait until the next spring. And you don’t have to worry about cleaning the pulp off the seed before planting – that will just add a little extra nutrition for the sprouting seed.
You can also buy maypop seeds online, but we couldn’t find any seed providers with good customer reviews. (This could possibly owe to the fact that passion fruit seeds seem to need to be planted immediately or they lose viability.)
Maypops can tolerate a wide range of soils, from clay to sand to loam. However, they prefer rich well-draining soil, and don’t like being in wet, boggy soil. For the first year, until the plant is established, the plant will benefit from getting a bit of irrigation if you’re in a drought period.
We also use wood chip mulch around our maypop plants to reduce competition from weeds and help maintain optimal soil conditions.
Maypop passion fruit pests and diseases
Passiflora incarnata plants are quite disease, pest, and drought-resistant. However, here are few things to be on the lookout for:
Root knot nematode – The plants can suffer from root knot nematodes (which damage the root system). These microscopic herbivorous nematodes can be treated by applying predatory nematodes as a root drench. (You can buy predatory nematodes, which are also great at controlling other pests such as Japanese beetles and fungus gnats on indoor seedlings.)
Butterly larvae – Depending on where you live, one or multiple butterfly larvae may feed on P. incarnata leaves. Species include:
- variegated fritillaries,
- Gulf fritillaries,
- zebra longwing,
- crimson-patch longwing,
- red-banded hairstreak, and
- Julia heliconian.
Here in South Carolina, the larvae of Gulf fritillaries are by far the most common and most damaging to our passionflower plants.
We’d encourage you to share your plants with these beautiful pollinators (even if you find the caterpillars unsightly), rather than using pesticides. Another option: grow two patches of passionflower vines – one for maximum fruit production, the other for maximum butterfly production. Transfer any caterpillars you find on your fruit crop to your pollinator crop.
Finally, once maypop fruit starts to ripen and/or fall to the ground, you may have everything from small mammals (raccoons, possums, skunks) to wild turkeys visiting to eat the fruit.
5. How to eat Passiflora incarnata, native passion fruit
How do you eat maypop/passion fruit?
The simplest way to eat native passion fruit is peeling off the outer skin and plopping the inner seeds and pulp right in your mouth. No preparation needed.
If you go this route, we don’t recommend chewing them, since the seeds are hard. You basically just suck on them and swallow the seeds whole once the flavor is extracted from the pulp surrounding the seeds. Once done, you can also spit out the seeds if you’re averse to ingesting them.
If you gather a bunch of maypops, you can also make a whole range of delicious recipes, ranging from jellies to simple syrups. Since pawpaws and passion fruit can be found at the same time of year, try our passion fruit pawpaw sorbet recipe (which might just be the best thing we’ve ever tasted).
Or if you love homemade probiotics like we do, you can turn your maypops into a delicious probiotic beverage, sparkling passion fruit-Meyer lemon cordial. If you don’t have Meyer lemons handy, you can also substitute citric acid using the simple recipe below.
Maypop passion fruit cordial
A delicious and simple to make tropical-flavored probiotic drink made using native passion fruit (Passiflora incarnata). The bubbles in this recipe are produced via a quick fermentation process that harnesses the power of wild yeasts.
- 1 cup passion fruit pulp (seeds and all)
- 3/4 cup organic cane sugar or honey
- 3 cups water
- 1 tsp citric acid or 1 tablespoon lemon juice
Add all ingredients to large canning jar and stir vigorously until sugar is dissolved.
Place a paper towel or linen cloth over mouth of jar and secure with a rubber band. Keep in cool indoor location (NOT a refrigerator) out of the sun.
Stir mixture vigorously with a clean spoon for 30 seconds at least twice per day (once in the morning and once in the evening). Taste a small amount each time after stirring to track flavor development. Within 3-4 days, you'll notice bubbles developing and a bit of foam on top as native yeasts begin to colonize the mixture, kickstarting the fermentation process.
After 7-10 days, your cordial should be ready. Strain, then bottle and store in fridge for up to 3-6 months. Do NOT store at room temperature or bottles could explode.
Ideal served in small cordial glasses as an apertif or digestif.
Now you know how to find, ID, grow, and eat Passiflora incarnata, aka maypop, a delicious passion fruit native to the United States. Your tastebuds will thank you for years to come, as will native pollinators!
Want to see a quick visual summary of this article? Check out our Google Web Story about native passionfruit!
Other articles you’ll feel passionate about:
- Recipe: passion fruit-Meyer lemon sparkling cordial
- A message from Fred, the Gulf fritillary butterfly (and its larval host plant, the passion vine)
- Pawpaw passion fruit sorbet
- How to grow fruit year round in your garden