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How to find, ID, harvest, grow, and eat native passion fruit, aka “maypop” (Passiflora incarnata)

How to find, ID, harvest, grow, and eat native passion fruit, aka "maypop" (Passiflora incarnata) thumbnail
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“Maypop” is the colloquial name for one of North America’s most delicious native fruits: passion fruit (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.


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.  

Each year in late summer, we’d walk down to an overgrown field in search of ripe maypops. The vines sprawled through the field, climbing over taller plants. 

They were easy to spot due to their distinctive leaves, but more so due to their strikingly beautiful and ornate purple flowers. By late summer, small egg-sized fruit dangled from the vines or fell to the ground. 

Maypop passion fruit flower / Passiflora incarnata flower

If there’s a more beautiful flower than a maypop passion fruit flower, we have yet to see it.

We’d eat our fill of the delicious, tangy tropical-flavored fruit and occasionally engage in a maypop battle, throwing the unopened fruit at one another and laughing when one met its target, creating an explosion of liquid fruit and seeds. 

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.

Other than pawpaws, there is no native fruit we like better than passion fruit — and we’d like you to fall in love with this important plant, too. 

The fascinating story of North American passion fruit, aka maypops (Passiflora incarnata) 

Something you might be wondering: “isn’t passion fruit a tropical plant?” Yes and no. 

There are lots of species of passion fruit, many of which only grow natively in the tropics around the world. Perhaps the most well known species is Passiflora edulis, native to tropical regions of South America. 

However, Passiflora incarnata is the non-tropical species of passion fruit native to the eastern United States.

Where do maypops (Passiflora incarnata) grow?  

You can find maypops (native passion fruit) primarily 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.  

By Density - GIS-gestützte Erstellung anhand freier Geodaten (Staatsgrenzen: National Atlas of the United States, http://nationalatlas.gov/atlasftp.html, Verbreitungsangaben: http://plants.usda.gov/java/profile?symbol=PAIN6) GIS-based compilation of free geodata (State Boundaries: National Atlas of the United States, http://nationalatlas.gov/atlasftp.html, Distribution information: http://plants.usda.gov/java/profile?symbol=PAIN6), Public Domain, Link

Map showing the states in which native maypops/passion fruit (Passiflora incarnata) can be found growing in the wild. Image credit: Density. USDA distribution information, Public Domain.

A sacred plant

As you might imagine, Native Americans swooned for passion fruit, which they used as both a food and a medicine (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 passionfruit 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.     

Maypop fruits at various stages of ripeness. The more green fruit in this image are equally tangy and sweet (our favorite). The older more wrinkly and yellow-skinned maypops are more sweet than tangy. Ripe maypops, passion fruit, passiflora incarnata

Uwaga! Maypop fruit at various stages of ripeness. The more green-colored fruit in this image are equally tangy and sweet (our favorite stage of ripeness). The older more wrinkly and yellow-skinned maypops are more sweet than tangy.

How did Native American societies use passion fruit? A USDA NRCS plant guide on native passion fruit 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 passion fruits growing in the wild. 

The plant grows in open-full sun areas. The edges of fields, roadways, waterways, and other open spots are an ideal spot to find passion 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. 

How do you ID passion fruit plants and fruit?   

Maypops are fairly easy to identify via their leaves, flowers, and fruit. Throughout this article, you’ve seen pictures of maypop flowers and fruit.

So here’s a closer look at a maypop leaf (which is visible early in the year before flowers and fruit appear) to help you with plant ID:  

Maypop passion fruit leaf (Passiflora incarnata).

Maypop passion fruit leaf (Passiflora incarnata).

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.     

What parts of a maypop plant are edible? 

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, and flowers. 

We enjoy the ripe fruit so much, that we don’t use other parts of the plant, as this would inhibit fruit production. Since passion vine leaves are an important host plant to Gulf fritillary and zebra longwing butterfly larvae/caterpillars, we’d rather they enjoy eating the leaves anyway. 

This orange and black spiky caterpillar might look terrifying, but it's the complete harmless larva of a Gulf fritillary butterfly. Native passion fruit is their sole host plant. Maypop Passiflora incarnata

This orange and black spiky caterpillar might look terrifying, but it’s the complete harmless larva of a Gulf fritillary butterfly. Native passion fruit is their sole host plant.

 

How can you tell if maypop fruit are 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 turns a slightly 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 of the tang that we enjoy.  

Oops! Unripe maypop that will be very sour/tangy, but not sweet or good tasting. Notice that the pulp around the seeds is still white. The pulp should be more yellow when ripe. Also, the skin of a maypop will be slightly yellow and have a bit of crinkle to it when the fruit is at peak ripeness.

Oops! Unripe maypop that will be very sour/tangy, but not sweet or good tasting. Notice that the pulp around the seeds is still white. The pulp should be more yellow when ripe. Also, the skin of a maypop will be slightly yellow and have a bit of crinkle to it when the fruit is at peak ripeness.

Are maypops nutritious? Medicinal? 

Even though we’ve never seen a nutritional analysis on Passiflora incarnata, it’s likely loaded with Vitamin C and Vitamin A, like its tropical cousin Passiflora edulis.   

As mentioned previously, various parts of the passion vine 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 wakefullness) as well as providing better general sleep quality.  

The plant’s sleep-conferring benefits may owe to the fact that Passiflora contains more gamma-amino butyric acid (GABA) than 20 other known plants with high levels of GABA. (Read more about GABA.)      

How do you eat maypop fruit? 

The simplest way to eat maypops is peeling off the outer skin and plopping the inner seeds and pulp right in your mouth. No preparation needed.

A nice pile of ripe maypops. Inside each green-skinned fruit is a cluster of seeds surrounded by thick deliciously flavored fruit pulp. The skin of the fruit should be removed before eating the inside. Passiflora incarnata, native passion fruit

A nice pile of ripe maypops. Inside each green-skinned fruit is a cluster of seeds surrounded by thick deliciously flavored fruit pulp that turns yellow when ripe. The skin of the fruit should be removed before eating the inside.

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 having more dietary fiber. 

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 passionfruit 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 cordial, using the simple recipe below:

One of the very best (and easiest) recipes for maypop passion fruits: sparkling maypop cordial.

One of the very best (and easiest) recipes for maypop passion fruits: sparkling maypop cordial.

maypop recipe, passion fruit recipe, passiflora incarnata recipe, passion fruit cordial, passion fruit fermentation
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Sparkling passion fruit cordial

Course: Drinks, Health Drink / Syrup
Keyword: fermentation, passiflora, passion fruit, probiotic, sparkling cordial
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Servings: 10

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.  

Ingredients

  • 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

Instructions

  1. Add all ingredients to large canning jar and stir vigorously until sugar is dissolved. 

  2. 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. 

  3. Stir vigorously with a clean spoon for 30 seconds AT LEAST once per day (ideally twice: once in the morning and once in the evening). Taste a small amount each time after stirring to measure flavor and bubble development. Within 3-4 days, you'll start to notice the concoction get bubbles and a bit of foam on top as native yeasts begin to colonize it, kickstarting the fermentation process.     

  4. After 7-10 days, your cordial should be ready. Bottle and store in fridge for up to 3-6 months. Ideal served in small cordial glasses as an apertif or digestif.   

How to grow maypop passion fruit (Passiflora incarnata)  

Does all this talk of passion fruit have you itching to grow these wonderful plants in your garden? We hope so! 

Here are some basics you should know first:

  • Maypops are vigorous growers and climbers. Each vine can grow 30′ long in a season under ideal 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 want to pull these runners if they come up in spots you don’t want (or dig them up and transplant them). 
  • Maypops grow best in full sun, 6+ hours of direct sunlight per day.
  • As a native plant, maypops can also tolerate droughts and adverse weather conditions better than many other common garden plants. 

You can grow maypops by either: 1) digging up rooted runners, or 2) via seed.

Option 1: Growing passion fruit via runners 

If you know where a maypop plant is growing in the wild, dig up newly emerged shoots/runners starting about 6″ below the soil surface to ensure there are roots on the plant.

Place the container in a shady spot for 2-4 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.  

Nearly ripe maypops on a trellis in our back yard. Notice the leaf damage caused by Gulf fritillary butterfly caterpillars.

Nearly ripe maypops on a trellis in our back yard. Notice the leaf damage caused by Gulf fritillary butterfly caterpillars.

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 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 be 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 passionfruit 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 loamy. However, they prefer 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. 

Maypop passion fruit pests and diseases 

Passiflora incarnata are disease and drought-resistant. They can suffer from root knot nematodes (which eat their roots). The other “pests” that can do a good bit of damage: the larvae of variegated fritillaries, Gulf fritillaries, and Zebra longwing butterflies. 

We’d encourage you to share your plants with these beautiful pollinators (even if you find their caterpillars unsightly), rather than using pesticides.    


Now you know how to find, ID, grow, and eat North America’s native passion fruit, Passiflora incarnata. Your tastebuds will thank you for years to come, as will our native pollinators!  

KIGI,


Other passion fruit articles you might enjoy:

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