Focus on Natives: Passionvine and its Butterflies

It’s nearly time for my favorite flower to bloom here in Tampa – it’s almost passionvine time! The vines are

It’s nearly time for my favorite flower to bloom here in Tampa – it’s almost passionvine time! The vines are climbing the trellis at the rate of several inches a day, and soon the large buds will appear. After that, it won’t be long before the flowers, spanning 4 – 5 inches, burst into splendor, with their exotic appearance matched only by their unique fragrance.

Photo credit: K. Gilpin
Passiflora incarnata - "Maypop"

There are nearly 500 varieties of Passiflora in the world. The most common throughout the southeast is Passiflora incarnata, often called Maypop.  This vine is so populous in some parts of the southeast that it’s considered a pest – it spreads underground and has a habit of popping up in places you don’t remember planting it. Though it will be killed back to the ground in a frost, it quickly pops back up when the temperatures warm up again, growing quickly to cover a trellis or patch of ground. It’s easily propagated by cuttings, and is drought-tolerant and happiest in full sun.

Several non-native passionvines can often be found for sale in the U.S., including Passiflora racemos, a red-flowered passionvine. Although this vine and its blooms are very attractive, I don’t recommend it to wildlife gardeners as this vine is toxic to our native butterfly caterpillars. The blue-flowered Passiflora caerulea, while not native, is fine as a host plant. There are also many hybrids between P. incarnata and P. caerulea, resulting in some beautiful and interesting blooms. These varieties are no more aggressive than our native Maypop, and make a good addition to a wildlife garden.

If you raise passionvine, you must expect caterpillars – it’s the host plant for four species in the Southeast.  Each of these species is shown below as butterfly, caterpillar, and chrysalis. (I’ll be doing detailed posts on each these butterflies in the future, but if you’d like more information in the meantime, click the pictures.)

Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae)
Zebra Longwing (Heliconius charitonius)
Julia (Dryas iulia)
Variegated Fritillary (Euptoieta claudia)

If you’d prefer not to sacrifice your vines to voracious caterpillars, you have a few options. You can check your vines daily for eggs (small and yellow, laid on any and all parts of the plant) and remove them. You can also spray the entire plant with insecticidal oil to kill any caterpillars. You might also consider contacting botanical gardens in your area to find out if they have a butterfly garden where the caterpillars might be welcome. (Note that though the caterpillars have spiny hairs, none of them are harmful to humans, so they’re safe to handle.)

Most butterfly gardeners welcome the caterpillars, though, and plant it purposely as a host plant. In my own yard, our passionvine is a regular draw for Gulf Fritillaries and the occasional Zebra Longwing. Are you passionate for passionvine? Tell us about your own experiences in the comments below!

Every weekend, the Focus on Natives segment highlights a plant, bird, or butterfly native to the Southeastern U.S. Know of a particular species you’d like to see featured here? Make your suggestions in the comments section below.

Jill Staake
Jill lives in Tampa, Florida, and writes about gardening, butterflies, outdoor projects and birding. When she's not gardening, you'll find her reading, traveling and happily digging her toes into the sand on the beach.