Easter Flowers Tell Stories

 We are spoiled by the fact that we always seem to have some beautiful flowers around us. Yet in the spring-time and near Easter thoughts turn to Easter lilies or perhaps lilacs depending on your location. There are some other plants flowering at this time of year that have a special relationship to Christianity. These are passion vines and the crucifix orchid which are grown in many yards in the area. Early Spanish missionaries were fervent in their faith and saw religious symbolism in many things, including flowers, fish bones (the skulls of some marine fish bear a resemblance to the crucifix), and other natural objects. 


The crucifix orchid is a South American plant that usually grows on the ground and produces many bright red and orange flowers which have a lip that could be considered to resemble a crucifix. In fact this lip is considered by scientists to be a "landing pad" for pollinating insects, especially butterflies. The photograph shows a zebra butterfly standing on the lip while obtaining nectar. Hummingbirds may also visit this flower to obtain nectar and in the process may pollinate it. 

Passion flowers are quite different in structure although their basic function, to produce seed and reproduce the species is the same. They have large and very flamboyant flowers which commonly may be purple/bluish or red. But the essential design of the flowers is similar. The flower morphology is what was interpreted historically by priests as signs of God to impress the S American natives. The Passion is the period between the Last Supper and the death on the cross. The single ovary was considered the chalice or holy grail, the three stigmas (which receive pollen which sends a tube down into the ovary to fertilize the seeds) as the three nails, the five stamens with pollen as Christ's wounds (2 in hands, 2 in feet and 1 in side), the radial filaments as the crown of thorns, the five petals and five sepals as the ten faithful apostles (minus Peter and Judas), the tendrils as the whips used to beat Christ, and so on. Of course these structures evolved long before there was any Christian religion, and their purpose was to facilitate the efficient attraction and pollination of the flowers, primarily by hummingbirds. In the red passion flowers, the bright red color, the lack of smell, and the reflex movement of the petals and sepals all show that this flower is designed primarily to attract hummingbirds. The filaments around the ovary protect the nectar from thieves that would not pollinate the flowers. There are also extra-floral nectaries at the bottom of the flower that reward ants for protection of the flower. 

Passion vine leaves also serve as food for the caterpillars of butterflies such as gulf fritillary, zebra and Julia, although the native corky-stemmed passion vine is the plant normally utilized. Some passion vines also provide an edible fruit although the leaves are poisonous and provide chemical protection for the butterflies that eat them. 

These flowers are marvels of beauty and natural design, regardless of how you view the meaning of their complex structure. Indeed enjoy them as we do all aspects of the amazing natural world, as parts of a complex ecological system that sustains us at aesthetic, gastronomic, intellectual and philosophical levels. 

Bill Dunson 
Englewood, FL, and Galax, VA