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A PASSION EASILY SHARED

IF paradise features breezy beaches, year-round gardening and luscious exotic fruits, then Central and South Florida is it! And a lovely and tasty aspect of that paradise is the easy-to-grow passion fruit.

Hawaiian Punch owes some of its distinctive taste to juice from Passiflora edulis, the fruit of which I savored during my first trip to Costa Rica in 1991. Folks there slice them in half, scoop out that tangy-sweet pulp, and dig right in. In Puerto Rico the pulp is blended with milk, sugar and ice cubes for a tasty smoothie. Many believe passion fruit is a mild relaxant that helps to lower blood pressure, and capsules of dried leaves often are sold to treat insomnia.

Two years ago I bought a purple passion fruit from Publix, planted a few seeds, and 18 months later one seedling had swathed a 45-foot chain-link fence in lush vines and amazingly complex blooms.

Some Christians see the symbols of Christ's crucifixion in the many petal parts, hence the common name passion fruit. In Central and South America it is also called maracuja and parcha. Both the yellow and purple forms are raised there commercially.

A garden club friend gave me a plant of the Giant Granadilla (Passiflora quandrangularis) that is treasured in Caribbean cultures for its tasty 5-pound fruits (yes, you read that right). That vine is now growing with rampant, carefree vigor, overgrowing a 5-foot west-facing fence with ease.

Don't limit edible passion fruits to a trellis or the mailbox. They need more room. Got a long, ugly fence or a garden shed? Let the lush vines consume and beautify it.

Try picking newly opened blooms in the morning and floating them in a champagne coupe so you can savor the rich perfume and colorful symmetry up close. A couple of times a month, scan the ground below your vines. You do not pick passion fruits; they drop to the ground when ripe. Bring them inside and let them ripen until they wrinkle a bit, for the sweetest, richest flavor.

I think it is fun to buy red, yellow or purple varieties from New Zealand at the grocery, taste them, plant several seeds in a pot, then transplant them to a fence line when they are 6 to 8 inches tall.

If you share my passion for the paradise that Florida can be, indulge in this easy exotic.

John A. Starnes Jr., born in Key West, is an avid organic gardener and rosarian who studies, collects, cultivates and hybridizes roses for Florida. He can be reached at johnastarnes@msn.com.

FIND YOUR PASSION

Finding passion fruit seeds and plants is almost as easy as growing them.

* Find locally grown plants at Jene's Tropicals, 6831 Central Ave., St. Petersburg, (727) 344-1668 or www.tropicalfruit.com.

* Trade Winds Fruit, P.O. Box 232693, Encinitas, CA 92023, www.tradewinds fruit.com, sells several species from seeds, which sprout and grow quickly. (Mail and online orders only; no phone orders.)

* Logee's Greenhouses, toll-free 1-888-330-8038, www.logees.com, reports that Passiflora "Incense" is its top-selling plant. Mail orders to 141 North St., Danielson, CT 06239.

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