Flowers symbolize Easter — from the pure white lily to the purple and yellow crocus and fragrant hyacinth. But another flower comes to us before Easter and symbolizes Passion Week.
The passion flower is a native of Latin America. Growing on a woody, fast-growing vine, it is adorned with large flowers — originally purple, but now hybridized into many shades. It also produces the oval, edible passion fruit.
In the last two centuries, associating flowers with various saints — most especially the Virgin Mary — has become increasingly popular. Mary Gardens and Bible Gardens can be found in many countries, including Mary’s Garden at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., and both a Mary Garden and Rosary Garden at St. Francis Xavier Cathedral in Green Bay.
The passion flower was first associated with the serpent gods of the indigenous tribes of Latin America and South America. When Spanish explorers arrived, they brought Catholic missionaries. These priests quickly noticed the large, purple flower and called it flor de las cinco llagas, or “flower of the five wounds.”
Once this flower (passioflora) was brought back to Europe, it became known by various names, including Christus-Krone in German (“Christ’s Crown”) and espina de Christo in Spanish for the “crown of thorns,” as well as flor-da-Paixão in Portuguese and, of course, “passion flower.”
We know that some saints have used plants to explain the Christian faith — such as St. Patrick’s shamrock or St. Boniface’s evergreen tree. The passion flower lent itself to similar catechism teaching.
As John S. Stokes Jr., founder of Mary’s Gardens noted, flowers like the passion flower “gave a specific focus of Christian faith to the religious sense of nature, and also provided a visual means of teaching the Gospel story …” Stokes and other other authors singled out the passion flower as such a tool, and showed how it was used to teach about Christ’s Passion. These included:
- The passion flower’s central flower column (the pistil that eventually produces the flower) represents the pillar of flagellation, because it is surrounded by spiraling tendrils that can be seen to indicate the multiple tips of a scourge.
- Radial filaments (the purple corona in the flower’s center) can number in the dozens (even over 100), but are traditionally set at 72, which was seen as the number of thorns in the crown of thorns.
- The passion flower has three stigma attached to the pistil. These stigma stand out in color and are traditionally linked to the three nails.
- Five anthers — the pollen producers — reminiscent of the five wounds on Christ’s hands, feet and side stand around the flower’s pistil.
- The 10 petals and sepals that surround each blossom have been linked to the 10 apostles — minus Judas the betrayer and Peter, who denied Christ. (Others list the 10 as those who deserted Christ in the garden, omitting Judas and St. John, who stayed at the cross.)
- The leaves have sharp points, which remind us of the spear of Longinus that pierced Christ’s side.
Much of this passion flower symbolism used by the early missionaries is credited to one of them, a Mexican Augustinian friar, Emmanuel de Villegas. He sketched the flower and took it back with him to Europe in 1610. Even though he was the artist, the symbolism credit often goes to a monk of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, Jacomo Bosio. It was to Bosio that de Villegas showed his artwork.
Later in history, more symbolism was added, including:
- The purple color of the original plants linked to the liturgical color of Lent;
- The central ovule, where the seed grows, representing the tomb of Christ;
- Spots under the leaves were said to number 30, for the pieces of silver paid to Judas;
- The fruit, that later springs from the flower, contains a myriad of seeds. These have been said to represent the entire world, which Christ came to save;
- The edible passion fruit itself, known as granadilla in Spanish is similar to a pomegranate. It was cultivated in Aztec and Inca temple gardens and today appears in many recipes in dozens of cookbooks sold on the iInternet.
One cookbook author, Patrick Jesse Pons-Worley, described passion fruit as “fruit caviar. It tastes like a combination of pineapple and guava.” Passion fruit juice is popular with shave ice in places like Hawaii and is also used in jams and jellies.
However else it is used, the showy flower, whether in purple or one of the many shades of its later descendants, can still remind us of Christ, both his sorrowful passion and the newness of life that his resurrection brought.
Sources: The Marian Library at udayton.edu; signum-crucis.tumblr.com; traditioninaction.org; Aggie Horticulture at tamu.edu; carmenjohnstongardens.com; chapelofhopestories.com; localharvest.com.blogspot and passionflow.co.uk