The Nellie Kelly passionfruit is one of the most widely grown varieties in Australia, particularly in the southern states. It was developed by nurseryman Clarence Walter Kelly in 1921 and, in 1958, became one of the first plants in Australia to be trademarked.
The passionfruit (Passiflora edulis) has its origins in South America and was named by Jesuit missionary priests for the passion of Christ. They equated the five anthers of the flower to the five wounds suffered by Christ on the cross. The name flor de las cinco lagas or ‘flower of the five wounds’ eventually became passion flower and passion fruit in English.
The fruit appeared in Australia in the early 19th century and examples were being exhibited in the Sydney Floricultural and Horticultural Exhibition by 1843. In 1847 passionfruit were being sold in the Sydney market for sixpence (5 cents) per dozen and by 1850 nurserymen were offering plants to gardeners. The vines flourished, particularly in northern climes where, in 1869, The Queenslander sang the praises of local passionfruit jam:
The preserves most noticeable were passion-fruit, grape, fig, loquat, and Cape gooseberry. The first and last make jams superior to anything imported, either from England or the colonies. There is a flavor and dash about them which is to be found in no other preserves, and which we trust is beyond the skill of the jam doctorers who have so long supplied this market, and who, by the use of acids and seeds, can convert carrots, pumpkins and melons into strawberry, gooseberry, currant or other jam according to demand. We do believe that to counterfeit passion-fruit jam is beyond their skill. Nor is it necessary that they should try. That fruit here is amazingly prolific, and can be marketed at a less price than any of the fruits from which jams are made. There is no difficulty in the way of creating a taste for it. Anyone who tries this jam will love it ever after.
Although, as late as 1886, Perth’s Western Mail was lamenting that the passionfruit had been “never raised to commercial rank as an exportable fruit”, in the 1890s growers began to experiment with export to England. By the 1920s, passionfruit was being widely cultivated in northern New South Wales, including by Spencer Cottee who used it as a basis for the iconic soft drink, Passiona.
One of the problems with growing passionfruit was their susceptibility to root disease. In 1921, Melbourne nurseryman Clarence (Clary) Kelly solved the problem by grafting the popular black passionfruit vine onto a hardier rootstock. Initially, his new grafted variety was unnamed. But in the 1940s, the story goes, Clary and his wife Florence loved a song called NellieKelly I Love You, from a movie starring Judy Garland. They adopted the name and, in 1958, registered it as a trademark.
Clary and Florence died in the 1970s but the name lives on. The Nellie Kelly passionfruit vine is a favourite in suburban backyards, especially in southern Australia because of its resistance to light frosts. Traditionally, it’s planted on top of a piece of lamb’s liver, which provides iron. Today, when offal doesn’t feature on many household menus, the experts recommend liberal doses of chook manure around the plant.