2017-07-14 / Home & Garden

A perennial vine with a passion for butterflies and conservation

Stopping to smell the flowers
By Arlene Marturano

Capture children’s enthusiasm for butterflies with a vine that matches their energy while rearing gulf fritillary butterflies on Passiflora incarnata, passion vine.

The native herbaceous perennial vine grows across the southeastern United States. While found in wilderness areas, it is also common in subdivisions and along roadsides.

The extraordinary beauty of the passionflower is dreamlike. Three-inch wide purple flowers have five sepals and five petals. The crown or corona is covered in wavy hair like fringe. In the center of each flower are five stamens and a tripart pistil. The ephemeral flowers last only one day.

An egg shaped green edible fruit filled with seeds follows faded flowers. The popping sound made when the ripe fruit is stepped on accounts for the common name maypop.

Starting a community of passionflower vines is not difficult; containing it is. The vine spreads by underground rhizomes popping up on property like prairie dog mounds. Mow the plant down, and it soon returns running for a mature length of 25 feet across the ground or twining its tendrils on nearby plants or structures. By cultivating passionflower in raised beds or containers you witness plant-insect relationships, butterfly behavior and life cycle on a daily basis. The vine hosts the eggs and larvae of the gulf fritillary butterfly. The plant is a frequently passed along by gardeners or obtained at native plant nurseries. If propagating from seed, sow in early spring. Germination is slow, from days to months.


Passion vine prefers full sun and adapts to well-drained clay, sand, and loam soils. Passion vine prefers full sun and adapts to well-drained clay, sand, and loam soils. While getting passion vine established, attract gulf fritillary butterflies with lantana as a lure. This nectar plant brings a pageant of butterflies with its mass of colorful nosegay shaped flowerheads, each offering 20-40 florets for tapping nectar.


The ephemeral flowers last only one day. The ephemeral flowers last only one day. Gulf fritillary butterflies have a 2.5 to 3.5 inch wingspan. Upper wings are a burnt orange color with black edgings and markings. The underside of wings is brown and orange with iridescent silver spots. The body is streaked in white and orange with black specks on the orange. Head is pointed and a black-coiled proboscis extends from the front.

Females deposit single yellow eggs on the underside of the tri-lobed palmate leaves of passion vine. The plant leaves have tiny yellow bumps mimicking eggs. The plant has devised a protection device to fool butterflies into thinking eggs have already been deposited. After all, eggs lead to caterpillars and the decimation of the leaves.

In four to six days, miniscule caterpillars chew their way out of the eggshell, which serves as an appetizer for the leafy green entrées ahead. Larvae are reddish brown caterpillars covered with rows of ominous looking, but harmless, black bristles. Caterpillars chew leaves and stem with chitinous mandibles.

The gulf fritillary is a resident of the southern US, Mexico, Central America, and South America.The gulf fritillary is a resident of the southern US, Mexico, Central America, and South America.
As caterpillars grow, their exoskeletons become too small, and they molt. After a series of molts, caterpillars pupate by finding a firm support on which to attach and change into a chrysalis. Within five to 10 days, the dry brown chrysalis shell splits, the adult butterfly emerges hanging upside down until its wings dry and harden. The lifespan of the adult is two to four weeks.

The gulf fritillary’s life depends upon the passion vine. By growing passion vine and rearing caterpillars to butterflies, children and adults come to realize their role in conserving natural systems.



The adult gulf fritillary is found in open fields, woodland edges, and urban and suburban gardens. The adult gulf fritillary is found in open fields, woodland edges, and urban and suburban gardens.

The life of a gulf fritillary caterpillar is two to three weeks of eating. The life of a gulf fritillary caterpillar is two to three weeks of eating.

The egg-shaped fruit called maypop is consumed by humans and wildlife. The egg-shaped fruit called maypop is consumed by humans and wildlife.

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