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Passiflora tripartita var. mollissima

Through our virtual programming series, Nature in your Neighborhood, we challenged volunteers to go out into their neighborhoods or backyards to see what plants sparked their interest. Whether plants are native or non native, we can all appreciate a connection to nature and the curiosity that it can spark!

By: Cooper Goldman

Evolutionary selection in the Passiflora genus

Passiflora is a relatively distinctive genus. Members of the genus are reminiscent of peacocks: visually demonstrative, colorfully explosive, and structurally symmetric. This is for good cause. Passionflowers–commonly tendril-bearing, viney climbers–are irresistible to bees, birds, bats and other pollinators. This evolutionary specialization is attributable to the fact that members of the Passiflora genus tend to be substantially reliant on biotic pollination. Not unlike peacocks, it is the phenotypical absurdity of the flower which makes it such a successful reproducer.

The Banana Passionflower

Passiflora tripartita is native to the Andes and has been found to grow at elevations ranging from 2000-3500 meters–roughly the same altitude as Machu Picchu, in Peru. This species of passionflower–colloquially referred to as the “banana passionflower”–was so-named because of the yellow color and oblong shape of its fruit. A delicacy in the Andes, the fruit is often eaten fresh from the vine when it’s not used in ice cream or strained for its juice. Though visually striking and seemingly delicate, Passiflora tripartita and, in particular, the mollissima variation, grow rapidly and are extremely competitive. It is therefore a rather dangerous invasive species, and is often called the “forest destroyer” or “alien vine” in places like Maui where its unchecked growth and highly specialized phenotype has wreaked havoc, outcompeting native species by swallowing, crushing, and suffocating slower-growing plant life.

In San Francisco, however--plagued by serial pests like cape ivy and ice plants--the banana passionflower is considered a minor intruder and provides its undeniable aestheticism as a reasonable consolation.

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