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Where Are the Passionfruit?

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Where Are the Passionfruit?

February 4, 2022

Passionfruit is attracting fresh—and deserved—attention. Thanks to an unusual alignment of factors that includes pandemic shopping habits, hyper-connectivity, and the burgeoning farm-to-table movement, this hard-shelled flavor-bomb of a fruit is emerging from relative obscurity in the United States.

It is easy to understand why: Passionfruit is aromatic, versatile, and photogenic. It ships well, keeps for weeks, and becomes sweeter with age (a wrinkled passionfruit is a ripe passionfruit). Yet despite checking these compelling boxes, it has remained hard to find in the US. But that is beginning to change. A boxful of fresh passionfruit might be a mouse-click (or a neighborhood) away.

Photography by Marie Viljoen.

Above: Two varieties of purple passionfruit beginning to ripen.

Botanically, passionfruit belongs to the genus Passiflora, which includes hundreds of species. They all produce fruit with thick shells ranging from purple to yellow, and shapes varying from petite and round to large and oblong. Passionfruit are modified berries, filled with edible black seeds encased in pulp. They may be sour, sweet, very juicy or drier. All are native to the Americas.

Above: Passionfruit blooms almost continuously.

For our purposes, the passionfruit under discussion are hybrids and cultivars of the South American species most in cultivation for their fruit: juicy and delicious P. edulis f. flavicarpa and P. edulis f. edulis. They may be round or oval, smooth and purple when just harvested, or wrinkled in delicious maturity. You may know them as chinola, lilikoi, maracuya, maracujá, or grenadilla (we’d love to know your name for passionfruit in the comments).

Above: Passionfruit ready for scooping.

Growing up in South Africa, our family dessert was often a bowl of passionfruit pulp, sweetened with a little sugar. When I travel back to South Africa, I am always in awe of the abundance of affordable passionfruit (known there as grenadillas) in ordinary supermarkets. They overflow from bins in the fresh produce aisle, or are sold neatly bagged. Their price (at the time of writing) is around $1 for 10 fruits.

By comparison, the equivalent supermarkets in the US are a passionfruit desert. If you catch a rare glimpse of one, it will be nested like a Fabergé egg in a padded tray, marred only by a stick-on price. The most recent example I saw at a local Key Food cost $3.99. Each. For a passionfruit lover this is painful to see. (A Google search for the fruit led to FreshDirect, which sells them at a more decent but still ridiculous price of $2.79 each.)

Above: Many US passionfruit are grown only for their flowers.

The US has climates perfectly suited to growing passionfruit, whose USDA hardiness zones are 9 through 11*. Consider California, Florida and Texas—the country’s fruit baskets —where passionfruit drop off suburban vines because the plant is generally cultivated only for its (gorgeous) passionflowers.

* (P. incarnata is a species native to the US Southeast that is hardy down to USDA zone 6.)

Above: A rambunctious passionfruit vine in my mother’s Cape Town garden (equivalent to USDA zone 10b).

Given how productive the vines are, how long the fruiting season is (up to nine months), and how well the fruit travels and ages, why do we not see more passionfruit for sale? One reason for the fruit’s relative scarcity is that most American shoppers simply don’t recognize it, and won’t buy it. So growers perceive little demand.

Above: Passionfruit from Rincon Tropics and Labay Market, Brooklyn.

But one southern Californian fruit purveyor has taken note of the glut dropping from local vines. Nicholas Brown, owner of Rincon Tropics, describes himself as a man on a mission to introduce passionfruit to the Americans who have never tasted one. He buys and sells fruit from neighbors and family “who grow responsibly” in Carpinteria, 100 miles north of Los Angeles. You won’t see his passionfruit—a cultivar named ‘Frederick’, grown by his mother, father and uncle—in supermarkets. Instead, they are shipped directly to customers across the US. For Mr. Brown, the pandemic was a turning-point. A farmers market vendor, his in-person sales were brought to a halt by COVID-19. But established customers kept asking for fruit (he also sells cherimoyas, citrus, and avocados) and the business adapted. “Over the last two years online sales took off,” he says. A three-pound box of passionfruit from Rincon Tropics costs $40 (before shipping). The fruit is big, smooth-skinned, and purple. Like all passionfruit, it keeps for weeks on the counter.

Passionfruit can also be summoned to your door from other online sources: From Miami, TropicalFruitBox is a distributor of a cornucopia of tropical fruit. A three-pound box of their Florida-grown passionfruit is $88. Also from Miami, MiamiFruit sells a three-to-five-pound box of Florida for $77.00.

Above: Passionfruit from Fei Long Market, Brooklyn.

If you like hunting for produce in person and live in a diverse community, you may be in luck: Asian markets are a reliable source of good passionfruit. In Brooklyn I find them in winter at Fei Long Market in Sunset Park for around $6.99 a pound. Caribbean groceries are another passionfruit paradise. Labay Market in Brooklyn’s Little Caribbean sells fruit flown in from owner McDonald Romain’s native Grenada. They are piled casually in a cardboard box at the entrance of the store for a modest $4.99 per pound.

For more uncommon fruits, see:

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