#69 Passion Flower



Passion Flower


Photo by Susan Watts


            The genus Passiflora, literally translated as “passion flower,” consists of around 500 species of vigorous climbing vines, mostly from “tropical America” with spectacular, intricately constructed flowers usually about three inches across, shaped something like crowned stars (Hogan 990). Evergreen in mild climates, the vine is capable of regrowing up to fifteen feet in summer. The most common available variety is Passiflora incarnata; according to Wikipedia, it is commonly known as “maypop” and begins blooming in July.[1]


First discovered for the West by colonizing Jesuit priests  “trying to crush the Inca empire in the sixteenth century,” the flower’s structure was elaborately allegorized to align with various aspects of the “passion” of Christ, the contrived resemblances being taken as a sign of the divine inevitability of converting the heathens (Heilmeyer 66).


William Curtis Botanical Magazine 1st Edition Prints Vol 1-6 1787


Heilmeyer quotes from the original 1663 account of the flower’s elaborate symbolism by Giovanni Battista Ferrari: “the corona ends in thorns reminiscent of Christ’s crown of thorns; the Savior’s innocence is revealed in the flower’s white color; the ragged nectary is reminiscent of his torn clothes; the styles represent the nails that were driven through his hands and feet; the five stamen represent his five wounds; the tendrils represent the whips” (66). Later interpretations added even more vivid detail: “The small undeveloped seed vessels may be compared to the sponge of vinegar offered to our Lord. . . . The base of the ovary is the column of the flagellation.  The filaments represent the scourges spotted with blood, and the purple circle on them is the crown of thorns” (qtd. by Folkard 250).


            Despite this burden of forced allegorization, the passion flower proved to be quite popular in Protestant, Victorian England. Asserting that over forty species had been imported by 1845, in her description of the passion flower Pratt dismissed the “enthusiastic imaginations” of the Spaniards and emphasized the beauty of the “large starry blossoms hang[ing] down in profusion amongst the branches of American forests” (72, 70).  Kate Greenaway seems similarly skeptical of Christian symbolism; in her 1884 account of The Language of Flowers, she lists “Religious superstition” as the meaning of the passion flower (32).


            Woolf’s use of passion flowers seems well aligned to the attitudes of these Victorian writers.  Of the nine times they appear in her writings, the majority relate to autobiographical associations concerning the proliferation of the vines on the west-facing façade of Talland House where she spent her edenic childhood summers.  Contemporary photographs of Talland House in the albums held by Smith College show an enormous creeper spreading across the balcony of Woolf’s parents’ bedroom, reaching out toward the window of the children’s nursery.



Woolf twice describes the magical appearance of the passion flower blossoms in her 1939 “Sketch of the Past,” both times associating the flowers with her mother’s appearance on her balcony in “a white dressing gown”: “There were passion flowers growing on the wall; they were great starry blossoms, with purple streaks, and large green buds, part empty, part full” (MOB 66).  The memory of these flowers leads into a meditative passage in which Woolf imagines herself a painter trying to encapsulate her earliest memories in visual terms:

I should paint these first impressions in pale yellow, silver, and green. There was the pale yellow blind; the green sea; and the silver of the passion flowers. I should make a picture that was globular; semi-transparent. I should make a picture of curved petals; of shells; of things that were semi-transparent; I should make curved shapes, showing the light through, but not giving a clear outline. (MOB 66)


Later, in a passage more specifically devoted to her memories of her mother, she conjures the same image: “I see her in her white dressing gown on the balcony; and the passion flower with the purple star on its petals” (MOB 81). While the image shifts from translucent silver to a more clearly defined purple star, there is a hagiographic quality to the presentation of her mother, dressed in white, surrounded by blossoms of mystic, celestial import, that preserves some of the intensity of the Jesuitical symbolism involved in the original name of the flower.


            Two mentions of passion flowers in Woolf’s fiction seem to recall the Cornish origins of Woolf’s memories. In Jacob’s Room the vines appear when Jacob visits the Durrants in Cornwall, as part of a constellation of plants and moths recalling Talland House at twilight with pampas grass raising its “feathery spears” above a “silvery meadow” and white moths “spinning over the flowers”; among the washed out oranges and purples of nasturtiums and heliotrope, “the tobacco plant and the passion flower, over which the great moth spun, were white as china” (JR 56). The sense of whiteness shining out is similarly evoked in To the Lighthouse where, again at twilight, Lily and William Banks stroll past the House -- “starred in its greenery with purple passion flowers” -- and the pampas grass to the break in the hedge bracketed by red-hot pokers (23). As in Jacob’s Room, the passion flowers are additionally associated with rooks “dropping cool cries from the cool blue” (TTL 23, JR 56), a sound which is also linked to the sight of the passion flowers surrounding Woolf’s mother on the balcony in “A Sketch of the Past: “the caw of rooks falling from a great height” (MOB 66).


            Aside from these fictional reiterations of this vivid, synesthetic, personal memory, passion flowers make only two more appearances in Woolf’s writing. Her very first mention of “passion flowers” occurs in a 1917 letter to Duncan Grant, in a context which evokes many of the same Cornish associations but suggests more of a verbal pun than a visual memory. Writing from Hogarth House, Woolf describes Grant’s recent visit: “You were like a beautiful but rather faded moth, the other day, after your nights debauch among the red hot pokers and passion flowers of Hampstead” (L2 144).  Although the moths and red-hot pokers accompany the passion flowers, one suspects that they are more flowers of carnal passion than evocations of maternal spirituality.


            Woolf typically presents Hampstead as the kind of place to which people retire, and this aura of old-fashioned sentiment accompanies the repeated invocations of passion flowers in A Room of One’s Own, written in between To the Lighthouse (1927) and “A Sketch of the Past” (1939-40). Here the passion flowers are contained in a quotation from Tennyson’s monologue “Maud,” a poem of thwarted love. Waiting for Maud all night at the garden gate -- she has been to a ball to which the narrator was purposely not invited -- the enchanted (and perhaps slightly mad) lover sings

                        There has fallen a splendid tear

                                    From the passion-flower at the gate.

                        She is coming my dove, my dear;

                                    She is coming my life, my fate. (Part I, section 22, stanza 10)


Presented somewhat ironically as a token example of the uncomplicated and idealized relations between the sexes before World War I, the line is repeated three times in the course of Woolf’s essay (12, 14, 99), a call of masculine longing that is answered by a quotation from Christina Rossetti’s poem “A Birthday,” which signals the woman’s rapturous acceptance of the man’s desire: “My heart is like a singing bird. . ./ Because my love is come to me” (13, 15, 99). Although this blossom too carries overtones of being a flower of passionate love, the Victorian associations do seem at least partially to match up with Woolf’s memories of her mother and of Mrs. Ramsey -- women whose acceptance of Victorian sex roles was almost saintly in its devotion and who, like Maud, died suddenly and rather earlier than expected.


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Passiflora_incarnata <Accessed January 22, 2021>



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About 98 Flowers

Welcome to the Virginia Woolf Herbarium.  For many years I have been researching and writing about Virginia Woolf and parks, gardens, and fl...