Passion Fruit and Birds of Paradise, What’s in a Name?

535800103_b7553b4fa4The passion fruit, with its leathery skin, slimy seeds, and great flavor, has always been something exotic (strange?) to me. I used to think that it got its name because people thought that eating it would produce passionate feelings. Wrong kind of passion. I now know that the name comes from the “passion,” or the suffering, of Christ.

When Spanish Jesuit missionaries found the plant in South America, they called it the “passion flower” because they saw in its bloom symbols of Jesus’ crucifixion. Specifically:

  • The 10 petals and sepals of the bloom represent the 10 disciples present at Christ’s crucifixion (the 12 minus Peter and Judas),
  • The fringe inside the flower represents the crown of thorns on Jesus’ head.
  • The five stamens represent  Christ’s wounds (one in each hand and foot and one in his side).
  • The flower’s three styles represent the nails used for the crucifixion.
  • The plant’s tendrils represent the whips used to scourge Jesus.
  • The leaves represent the hands of those who killed Jesus.
  • And the flower’s colors, white and blue, represent purity and the heavens, respectively.

But that’s not all I’ve learned. I lately found out the origin of the name for birds of paradise. Again, I figured they were called that because of their exotic beauty—that would be found in a tropical paradise. Wrong again.

6956272927_479613cc0a_nAn article in a 1906 issue of Birds and Nature (the “only magazine in the world illustrated by color photography”) states that European traders first discovered birds of paradise when they visited islands in southeast Asia—some 300 years earlier—looking for spices. Some natives gave the explorers the dried skins of  birds with beautiful plumage. The locals called the birds “God’s Birds,” and when they killed them, they cut off the legs and feet, burying them under the tree where the birds came from as an offering to heaven.

The dried bodies of the birds were exported as time went on, and as the people of Europe had never seen one alive, but always the skin without legs and feet, they came to consider them as heavenly birds, indeed, formed to float in the air as they dwelt in the Garden of Eden, resting occasionally by suspending themselves from the branches of trees by the feathers of their tails, and feeding on air, or the soft dews of heaven. Hence they called [them] the Birds of Paradise.

Those Europeans with their creativity and imaginations.

So what’s in a name? Obviously, a lot more than I thought.

(Robert E. Paull and Odilio Duarte, Tropical Fruits, Volume 2, Cambridge, MA: CABI, 2012, p 168; “The Kingbird of Paradise,” Birds and Nature, October 1906, p 92)

[photos: “Passion Flower,” by kuribo, used under a Creative Commons license; and “n7_w1150,” by Biodiversity Heritage Library, used under a Creative Commons license]


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