Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Incarnata expedition of doom

The first passion flower I ever saw--15 years or so ago--was a wild incarnata growing on an exotic livestock farm my family owns. I had no clue what it was at the time, of course, but thought it beautiful. I also figured it was a swamp plant, since it was growing near an irrigation canal and the ground was somewhat boggy. There was nothing tall for 50 yards in any direction, so I didn't know it was normally a climber. Also, when I was working on the game-proof fencing back then, I found a number of them climbing up the fence. There were no flowers to be seen, which is why I didn't recognize them, but plenty of fruit. I guessed they might be some sort of wild cucumber or melon. When my in-laws gave me a couple of Incense suckers a year or so back, and the plants started flowering, I figured out what my mystery flower at the deer farm was. As my passiflora obsession grew, I knew I wanted to collect some of this first species I ever encountered.

So over the weekend I had a chance to go back there for the first time in two years or so. The first time since I'd learned what passion flowers were. I definitely wanted to try and collect some plants for my yard--and also for trade.

Unfortunately, I could not find any growing in grassy field where I first encountered them. That was disappointing, but not unexpected, since those fields have been plowed, shredded and who knows what else over the years. Nor were any growing along the tree line, drainage ditches or wild hedges I had easy access to. I did see a number of vigorously growing vines--6 feet tall or more--but they were all on the opposite of the 8-foot-tall game-proof fence, along the berm containing the irrigation canal. Along with all manner of other vines and thick brush. None of it easily accessible.

I was able to pull up one vine vine growing close to the fence and get a little bit of the root (maybe an inch or two of white root material) but nothing of the deeper rhizome. I was also able to reach two other vines through the fence with the shovel and remove the tops, in hopes of making rooted cuttings. But what I really and truly wanted and needed was a big piece of root, preferrably attached to vine.

I finally spotted one that wasn't too thickly entangled in brush--or so I thought. It was near a turn in the fence, where an old telephone pole buttressed the fence. I could climb here. Not easily, but passable nonetheless. Imagine my surprise (and dismay) when, near the top, hordes of fire ants began pouring out of the pole. Not the ground around it, but the pole itself! And me, with nowhere to go.

I scrambled over the top with minimal stings, amazingly enough, half-jumping, half-falling into a weedy, prickly bush that was only distantly related to cacti. I was scratched, stung and sore already, but my fun was just beginning. Anyone in the southern U.S. should be familiar with dewberries, a tart, delicious wild relative of the blackberry. They grow rampant, and have insanely thorny canes. There were a lot here that I had to wade through to reach the "accessible" incarnata I'd spotted. There was also another vine, one that had pretty, tri-lobed, variegated leaves. Not entirely un-passiflora-like. Except this wicked thing was everywhere, and had big, evil thorns. I started wishing for more dewberries when I hit those woody, thorny vines. And, as fate would have it, those were wrapped all around the lone incarnata I was striving for.

So what should've been a simple, quick dig turned into an ordeal of disentangling Thorn vines, dewberry canes and random brush branches from this one, slender passion vine. It was a 30 minute battle just to get a clear view of the dirt underneath, in which to dig. That poor incarnata took quite a beating, I'm afraid. Not much of the vine, or the leaves, survived. I finally got a good, 8-inch C-shaped section of the roots up. Sweaty, hot (mercury hit the high 80s) with my arms and legs really ripped up pretty convincingly, I started back through the gauntlet of fire ants with my prize.

It was then I realized my glasses were missing. I only use them for distance viewing. I'd been wearing them as I searched for passion vines in the thick greenery, but had put them in my shirt pocket once I'd started in on my quarry. Looking back through the sea of blood-thirsty, vampiric plants, I saw the tell-tale glint of light against glass right there at the hole. They'd fallen out when I bent down to lift out the incarnata roots. sigh Once more, into the breach.

The fun winds down pretty quickly after that. I retrieved my glasses and made it back over the fence without breaking anything vital. I wrap the vines and roots up in paper towels, bag them, and wet everything down thoroughly to keep it viable until I return home. The long and short of it is that I got one good, rooted plant with enough of the vine surviving to pot up with a high degree of confidence. I dipped the partial root that I collected earlier in rooting hormone, trimmed the vine back, and potted it as well. The rest, I cut up, dipped in hormone and potted in hopes of coaxing them to grow roots. Out of all that effort, these are my results:

Belatedly, I discovered that one of the vines was setting flower buds like crazy. Had to pick all of those off. My track record with cuttings has been inconsistent, with failures outnumbering my successes by a 2:1 margin but I'm hoping to get some good results out of these. I've got 14 different cuttings and/or roots going here, and hopefully I'll have plenty of extra for trade in a few months. Incarnata are native and produce edible fruit, unlike my Incense. So I look forward to seeing what the future holds with these.

I know the effort to get the incarnata specimins is way disproportionate for the plants' value--especially when any Tom, Dick and Harry could easily get them from eBay or the odd plant nursery. But hey, this was the plant that sparked my love for passis, so it became a personal mission.

Now Playing: Rolling Stones Steel Wheels


  1. It is an emotion-provoking flower, well deserving the name. Last year my husband rushed into the house to announce that he'd seen "a really freakishly beautiful flower, I can't even describe it." I said, "Yep, you saw a passionflower." It's the only flower I know that can be described that way.

    I've been thinking of planting some. Looks like I've found my expert. When we arrange an actual meeting, we'll have more than the writers' workshop to talk about!

    - your fellow DilloCon co-chair

  2. I've got a number of root suckers potted up from my Incense, and am digging up new ones regularly. If you want, I'll be happy to give you one!

  3. That would be very cool! I'd love one.

    (I've got to figure some way to get blogger to alert me when someone replies to my comments. I don't know why it doesn't. *sigh*)