disturbed habitats, maypops may become problem weeds in agricultural fields, outcompeting the crop plants for soil moisture, nutrients, and light.
Maypops grow as perennial, herbaceous vines climbing by tendrils. The leaves are deeply lobed into three parts, with pairs of nectar-producing glands at their
bases; similar glands are found beneath the flowers. These extrafloral nectaries attract pugnacious ants--and the more pugnacious the better! In scenes more common to tropical climes, the ants patrol the leaves and stems, dislodging, deterring, and generally harassing any would-be herbivores, such as caterpillars. Fewer herbivores means more carbohydrates for growth and reproduction, so that the attraction of ants is effectively translated into greater tissue and fruit production.
Blooming from May to September, maypops produce ornate, oddly featured flowers. One to three inches across, the flowers consist of five sepals and five petals surrounding a central, purple-banded crown or corona. An androgynophore, produced by the fusion of sexual parts, raises the five stamens, ovary, and three-parted style above the rest. The flowers open around noon, with each lasting a single day.
Maypops are incapable of self-fertilization. Pollination is generally by carpenter bees, attracted by the corona and supping at the circular nectary at its base. The resulting fruits are many-seeded berries, one to two inches long, turning yellow at maturity. The berries are eagerly consumed by fruit-eating mammals, including humans.
Some controversy exists as to whether maypops have ever truly been cultivated. While long utilized, they may, instead, represent a "quasi-domesticate," a weed
crop thriving in the open soil and full sun. Maypop seeds appear regularly in the southeastern archaeological record, carbonized (and thus preserved) when tossed into ancient cooking fires. Early historical accounts reveal that maypops were abundant in Indian gardens, and that the fruit was regularly consumed.
Native Americans also used the fruits to treat insomnia and soothe nerves-treatments recently supported by laboratory studies in rats.
Like other passionflowers, maypops have long been revered for their Christian symbolism. Named flos passionis or flor de las cinco llagas (flower of the five wounds), a passionflower is believed to have grown on the cross in the vision of Saint Francis of Assisi. During a time when nature was seen solely as allegory, each flower part was considered to represent an instrument of the Passion. The tendrils are the whips used to scourge Christ; the ovary is the hammer, while the
three styles are the nails; the stamens represent the five wounds, and the fringed crown is either the crown of thorns or the radiant light surrounding Christ's head. Finally, the combined petals and sepals are the ten disciples. (Judas, who betrayed Christ, and Peter, who denied him, are conveniently left our.) The Jesuits, finding the Indians eating passionflower fruits, took it as a sign that they were hungry for Christianity, and so began, with great zeal, to convert them.
Maypops, then, have much to teach us--about tropical plants, plant-ant interactions, even plant-human relationships and the process of cultivation. In
addition, they contain all the elements of the crucifixion story--except for a disciple or two.