Passiflora incarnata L.

Maypops (passionflower; mayhaw)


       Maypops fruits are small (3-5 cm in diameter), fleshy, and sweet. Their durable seeds pass through the digestive systems of animals and humans to be dispersed in feces. They are probably under-represented in the archaeological record because the seeds would rarely come into contact with fire, and thus not be charred and preserved in open sites. However, they do occur in some archaeobotanical assemblages from eastern North America.



       Maypops seeds range between 7 mm and 8 mm in length and about 4 mm in width (Figure 1). They are ovoid and pointed at each end. The surface is dimpled all over like a golf ball, making identification of seed fragments possible.


Archaeological Distribution

       Archaeological maypops seems to increase its geographical range through time from Archaic to historic times (Gremillion 1989), but it is limited to the southeastern states of Virginia, North and South Carolina, Tennessee, eastern Missouri, eastern Oklahoma, eastern Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia.

       Maypops seeds have been recovered from all time periods since the Late Archaic, but their ubiquity is greatest in Mississippian times, perhaps corresponding to the beginning of "preeminence of maize as a crop plant in the East" (Gremillion 1989:142). Maypops and gardens were usually associated, as documented by early historic records (p. 139)

The Modern Plant and Its Distribution

       Maypops is a perennial vine with flamboyant flowers (Figure 2). It grows best in disturbed, sunny areas, such as vacant lots, and the edges of streams.

       Modern plants enjoy a larger distribution than archaeological plant remains. The plant is now seen in southern Indiana, southern Illinois, southern Missouri, southeastern Nebraska, eastern Oklahoma, eastern Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, North and South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, and western Kentucky. The range extension is probably because of both increased human disturbance with European colonization and the cultivation of the plant for its showy flower.



       Nutritional studies of commercially important Passiflora species demonstrate that the fruits are good sources of vitamins A and niacin (Martin and Nakasone 1970:341). Although the flavor of the native maypops is not outstanding (Gayle Fritz, personal communication, 1994), maypops was probably a welcome treat to people without processed sugar snacks.

       Gremillion (1989) summarizes paleoethnobotanical data regarding Passiflora incarnata and infers that maypops plants were encouraged weeds rather than tended crops. Historic records demonstrate that maypops was "abundant in Indian gardens" (p. 139). Maypops was probably not purposefully planted, because it is an aggressive colonizer of disturbed ground. Maypops is a good case for the discussion of obligate relations between humans and plants. For example, maypops would not be a plant we would expect to be domesticated because it colonizes so readily and the fruits are eaten by many other animals besides humans.



Gremillion, K. J.

    1989   The Development of a Mutualistic Relationship between Humans and Maypops (Passiflora
            incarnata L.) in the Southeastern United States. Journal of Ethnobiology 9:135-155.

Martin, F.W ., and H. Y. Nakasone

    1970   The Edible Species of Passiflora. Economic Botany 24:333-343.

Radford, A. E, H. E. Ahles, and C. R. Bell

    1964   Manual of the Vascular Flora of the Carolinas. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel

Written by: Gina S. Powell