The yellow passionfruit, Passiflora edulis f. flavicarpa, and the purple passionfruit, Passiflora edulis, are grown in most tropical and subtropical parts of the world. The yellow passionfruit is a tropical plant while the purple is considered subtropical, being able to survive some freezing temperatures.
Of the hundreds of species in the genus Passiflora, these two, P. edulis, and P. edulis f. flavicarpa, are solely designated as passionfruit. In Hawaiian, the fruit is called lilikoi, and in Portuguese, maracuja peroba. When the seeds of purple passionfruit first came to Hawaii from Australia in 1880, they were planted in East Maui in the District of Lilikoi and that name stayed with the fruit.
The seeds of the yellow passionfruit were brought to Hawaii from Australia in 1923. In 1951, there were only a few acres of passionfruit plantings. It was then the University of Hawaii chose passionfruit as the most promising crop for development. And by 1958, there were 1,200 acres of primarily yellow passionfruit, and the industry was firmly established.
The lilikoi vine is a shallow rooted perennial, displaying beautiful, fragrant flowers, 2 to 3 inches wide. The fruit is nearly round, approximately 1 1/2 to 3 inches wide.
Inside, the fruit is filled with an aromatic mass of juicy pulp and within are as many as 250 small, edible seeds. These vines, especially the yellow, are fast-growing and will begin to bear in one to three years. In fact, some vines can flower and fruit within a year after being started from seed. In Hawaii, passionfruit matures from June through January; the ripe fruit will fall to the ground.
Carpenter bees are efficient pollinators for the yellow passionfruit. Honey bees and the hover fly also help in pollinating but are much less efficient. Wind is ineffective as a pollinator because of the heaviness and stickiness of the pollen.
The yellow lilikoi vine tends to be more vigorous and the fruit generally larger than the purple. While the purple appears to grow better at higher elevations, 400 to 3,000 feet, the yellow fruit is best adapted to lower elevations, from sea level to 1,500 feet. Furthermore, the yellow will yield three to four times that of the purple, yet the purple fruit is considered to have better flavor and aroma with the pulp being less acidic with a higher proportion of juice.
Passionfruit vines are usually grown from seeds. If the seeds are planted soon after being removed from mature fruit, most will germinate in two to three weeks. Fortunately, seeds do not require cleaning, drying or storage. They can be planted immediately after being removed from the fruit, even separation from the pulp is not necessary. In fact, allowing the pulp to ferment for a few days might hasten germination. In contrast, seeds that were cleaned and stored actually have a lower and slower rate of germination. Propagation of passionfruit can also be accomplished through air layering and cuttings. Good soil drainage is essential for successful plantings.
Commercially, vines are trained on wire trellises. For backyard production, however, the yellow passionfruit is more productive and less subject to pests and diseases if allowed to climb a tall tree.
In Hawaii, Oriental and melon fruit flies will deposit eggs in young fruit. This might cause fruit to shrivel and fall from the vine. If older fruit is pierced, the only ill effects will be an external scar. Other pests include aphids, scale, thrips and mites.
In spite of all these, passionfruit or lilikoi vines flourish on fences and in trees, in backyards and vacant lots around the Islands.
The juice with its distinct flavor and aromatic bouquet is a key ingredient in making sauce, candy, ice cream, sherbet, iced tea or in cocktails. In the Hawaiian Islands, lilikoi is a favorite flavor enjoyed by young and old alike.
A delightful cookbook of a hundred lilikoi recipes was recently compiled by local residents and published by The Larry Czerwonka Company. The book, “Lilikoilicious Cookbook,” can be ordered through Amazon.
Hilo resident Nick Sakovich is a professor emeritus of the University of California. He has worked in the field of agriculture for 30 years. Email your questions to Sakovich at firstname.lastname@example.org.