Identifying a Passionflower

On the 23rd of every month Christopher Tidrick explores the history behind the plants in his garden and calls the meme Linnaeus Day in honor of modern horticulture's founding father, Carl Linnaeus. I think it's a great idea, so I'm joining him with a post about a plant that's very near and dear to my heart; my mother's favorite flower in the garden and the one I was drawing for her right when she passed away.

At least it seemed like an innocuous enough plant to research. After all, it's been in cultivation since the 1800's and is still one of the favorite passion flowers around. When Passiflora authority Miles Irvine notified me that the drawing I named Passiflora alatocaerulea should have been labeled Passiflora x belotii, however, I started to realize that there was more to this flower than met the eye.

Used with permission from

For such a commonly grown passionflower, Passiflora x belotii has a confusing past and a slough of cumbersome names to confuse us poor gardeners. It is a hybrid between Passiflora alata and Passiflora caerulea, but nobody seems to know when the two were first crossed. Since this blog post is part of the Linnaeus Day meme, it's interesting to note that Linnaeus himself was the first to describe Passiflora caerulea way back in 1753. What's even more remarkable; Linnaeus included it in his very first edition of the Species Plantarum, a publication on par with Darwin's On the Origins of Species as one of the most important contributions to biology. Linnaeus attained knighthood that very same year.

Passiflora x belotii has officially been around since 1824, but since then there has been a lot of disagreement on both what to name this passion flower, and what it is to begin with. It was originally named Passiflora alato-caerulea by Lindley, but has since been renamed again and again. Here's the kicker: While P. belotii is now recognized as a cross between P. caerulea and P. alata, it was also thought to be a cross between P. edulis and P. quadrangularis amongst several other combinations.

If you'd like to buy one of these at the garden center, you're just as likely to find it for sale under the names Passiflora x alatocaerulea, Passiflora 'Empress Eugenie,' 'Emperatrice Eugenia' or one of a long list of both real and imagined hybrids. 'Empress Eugenie' is the most alluring name to be sure, since it refers to the last empress of France. Unfortunately, the many translations and misspellings make this most romantic name just as shaky as any other.

So why is it so hard for us to pick a name and just go with it? Buckle up for the next few paragraphs, because it's about to get nerdy. First of all, the most reliable way to identify a plant is by the morphology of its flowers, and those of passion flowers are ridiculously intricate and complex. The shapes and arrangements of buds, leaves and nodes also help, but the identity usually isn't revealed until the first bloom opens. To make things even more difficult, they're also totally inconsistent and fickle, showing an immense amount of variation within the same species.

Hybrids like P. x belotii inherit traits of both parents, but each cross results in a different combination of those traits. For example, one flower could take after P. alata and inherit a deep pink blush on the sepals, or another cross might result in colors resembling the other parent, P. caerulea. Identifying passionflower hybrids is a bit like picking out the parents of inbred hillbillies on a daytime talk show, without the benefit of a paternity test.

The official plant databases can't even seem to agree on P. belotii and they list it as a synonym for Passiflora alato-caerulea... which doesn't really mean much, since even P. alato-caerulea is considered to be an unresolved name. After learning this little twist I decided to consult further with Myles Irving, who pointed out that these online databases aren't necessarily the best when it comes to listing hybrids. Since Myles is an experienced passion flower breeder who's managed to unite the world's wild and crazy bunch of passion flower growers through an online journal, the internet's most exhaustive passion flower resource and even a Facebook group, I would tend to believe that he knows what he's talking about.

The drawing I was working on when my mother passed.
I used to float passionflowers in bowls for my mother.
I quickly became swept up in this passionflower's rich and hopelessly muddy history, and soon forgot all about the impact it's made in my own life. This was one of the first plants I added to my mother's garden, given pride of place in the very middle of the yard so that she could easily see it from her wheelchair. Since passion flowers are best enjoyed up close, I would clip off the individual flowers to float in little bowls filled with water. The flowers would just float there like water lilies, perfuming the room with a citrusy scent while she painted and wrote her 'grace notes.' Often a little black ant or two would accompany the flower indoors, and they would ramble about on this little spaceship of an island until my mom tossed them back into the yard.

When my mother lay on her deathbed, I started drawing one of these passion flowers to bring her some happy memories in a dark and scary time. With a yellow gown, surgical mask and gloves as a defense against infections, I showed my nearly blind mother the faint but meticulous outlines of a passion flower with no name. Eagerly, she gasped and clutched onto my drawing as if she was grasping on to the life she knew with all of her strength. The paper became creased in her shaky and unreliable hand, and with frustration and blindness she forfeited the memory to me, telling me that she would just have to look at it when it's done. She knew nothing of the last empress of France or Linnaeus's swan song to science, but for my mother, Passiflora x belotii was known simply as "that beautiful passionflower."


  1. What a wonderful post! I received a passion flower last year and it has just come out of the greenhouse. I can't wait for it's blooms!

  2. I love the smell of the passionflower and I often smell the flower before I see it.

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  4. Your post touched my heart, Steve. I lost my own Mother last month, and I had forgotten that you lost your Mother not too long before I did, until I read this. (I am a Facebook friend: Shady Gardens Nursery.) What a beautiful and bittersweet memory the Passionflower invokes for you. You are a little bit of an inspiration to me, as I am having a hard time with my own memories right now.


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