The Passion flower (Passiflora) is also known as Maypops, and in parts of South America, Maracuja. It is a plant of the Americas that was taken to Spain and later Europe and other parts of the world by early Spanish explorers and missionaries. In South America, early Catholic missionaries used parts of the flower’s anatomy as symbols representative of Christ’s suffering and from there it entered into folklore. The name relates to the Passion of Christ rather than having romantic connotations.
One of the earliest known Europeans to encounter the flower was Nicolás Monardes (c1493 – 1588), a Spanish doctor in Peru in 1569. In 1745, Carl von Linné (c1707 – 1778) classified the plant recognising 22 species. The hybridization of the plant began in Victorian Britain and there are now believed to be more than 600 hybrids of the Passion flower around the world. It was the Europeans who noted that the plant had mild sedative properties and was beneficial in alleviating pain, nervous conditions and insomnia. However, it was in 1610 that Emmanuel de Villegas, a Mexican Augustan monk, seems to have been the first person to note, or record the symbolism attached to the plant’s anatomy and made sketches that were sent back to Europe.
In early times because most people could not read or write, in Christian art and teaching, flowers were used as symbols representing profound metaphysical ideas and concepts to make it easier for the uneducated mass of people to understand. In some cases symbols were taken from the earlier pagan times before Christianity. The Passion flower became part of this tradition when it was adopted by early Catholic missionaries and brought back to Spain from the New World.
Symbolism of the Passion Flower
The symbolic use of the Passion flower was to help people understand the Passion of Christ and the Crucifixion. It was seen in the following way, ‘The whipping and scourging of Christ is represented by the tendrils. The pillar of the scourging is represented by the flower column. The Crown of Thorns is the 72 filaments that encircle the head. The three nails are symbolized by the top stigma and the five wounds of Christ are the five anthers. The style is the sponge that moistened Christ’s lips with vinegar. The spear blade that pierced his side is seen as the leaves (some species only). The blood of Christ is the red stain from the plant and the round fruit of the plant symbolises the world he came to save. The fragrance of the flower represents the spices prepared by the Holy women.’ (mdidea.com)
The Spreading of the Passion Flower
Like the teachings of Christ, the Passion flower has spread around the world carrying the story of Calvary and the Christian message to people far and wide over many centuries.