I always assumed that the ‘passion’ in ‘passion flower’ somehow referred to the plants’ exotic, almost sensual beauty—a combination of layered stigmas and anthers, colorful radial filaments, and delicate petals and sepals make the passion flower almost too beautiful to be real, especially in a place as non-exotic as the southeastern United States. Here, the passion flower Passiflora incarnata can be found growing as far north as Pennsylvania.
Imagine my surprise when I read that ‘passion’ actually referred to the crucifiction—or passion—of Jesus! That had to be a joke. But, as it turns out, that is where the name came from.
The passion flower—Flos passionis—got its name from seventheenth century descriptions of the flowers by Spanish priests in South America. Back then, the plant was known as ‘La flor de las cinco llagas’ or ‘The flower with the five wounds’. Those five wounds are the five sacred wounds suffered by Jesus during his crucifixion, represented by the five stamen with anthers. Above those, the three stigmas are the nails used during the crucifixion.
The coronal filaments—arguably the most striking feature of most Passiflora—represent the crown of thorns. Under the filaments, the five petals and five sepals are the 10 faithful disciples, minus Judas and Peter of course. This symbology can be seen in a 1610 drawing by Eugenio Petrelli for a book by the Jesuit Antonio Possevino.
And passion flower isn’t the only holy moniker to be used through the ages based on this symbolism: ‘Espina de Cristo’ (‘Christ’s thorn’), ‘Dorn-Krone’ (‘crown of thorns’), ‘Christus-Krone’ (‘Christ’s crown’), ‘Christus-Strauss’ (‘Christ’s bouquet’), ‘Marter’ (‘passion’), ‘Jesus-Lijden’ (‘Jesus’ passion’), and ‘Muttergottes-Stern’ (‘Mother of God’s star’) have all been used.
Personally, I see all this symbolism as a stretch—the passion of Jesus isn’t nearly the thing that comes to mind when I look at Passiflora. But whatever symbolism one ascribes to this flower, I think it’s safe to say that it is inarguably beautiful.