Passionflower: Passiflora incarnata

By Steph Zabel
Herbalist, Ethnobotanist and Educator

There may not be an herb as striking and gorgeous as passionflower. Its circular, whirling, complex blossom is breathtaking. And although it seems to be an exotic species that comes from a far off place, it is a plant that is native to the southeastern part of our country.

Growing up in South Carolina I have vivid memories of passionflower vines from my childhood. My grandparents grew them outside of their home, and we also found them growing wild along the edges of the streets where we walked. My cousins and I would stop and exclaim if we found a passionflower in bloom. It always seemed like a little piece of magic that we stumbled upon at those times — something intensely beautiful and mysterious that stood out like a spark in the landscape.

Going back south for visits I frequently spy tangly nests of passionflower vines growing in ditches along the roadside. Sometimes they find something else to climb upon; other times they spread out in unruly waves along the ground.

 Passionflower Drawing by Steph Zabel

Passionflower Drawing by Steph Zabel

Vining plants are unique in their growing habits, unlike trees and shrubs and flowers that are naturally upright and keep to themselves. Instead, vines are climbers and creepers, stretching out their tendrils and elongated stems in order to seek another form to cling to. Such is the case with passionflower, which has delicate, tightly-wound, grasping tendrils. When given a trellis or other support to grow upon its vining beauty is most fully expressed.

The lovely, complex flower structure of Passiflora make it a sought-after ornamental plant. (See the growing details below if you wish to try your hand at cultivating it.) Its fruit is edible and is sometimes referred to as “maypop” because of the popping sound it makes when pressed. If you open up a ripe fruit you will discover an edible inner flesh that is juicy and sour, and filled with dark seeds.

Passionflower has a long history of traditional use. It is perhaps most well known for its calming influence on the nervous system. Herbalists use the plant for anxiety, tension and nervousness. It is a wonderful remedy for people who get over-stimulated and are tightly wound. (I like to think of its tightly coiled tendrils as a metaphor of this feeling.) How it works its calming magic is not exactly known, but it is believed to increase levels of gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain which creates a relaxing feeling in humans.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

The upper parts of passionflower — the leaves, stems and flowers — are also a common remedy for insomnia and sleep issues, acting as a mild sedative. Many herbalists like to recommend it for people who cannot let go of their endless thoughts at night, preventing them from getting sound sleep. Passionflower helps the body and mind to wind down a notch, letting go of nervous energy in order to more fully relax. Likewise, because of its calming and anti-spasmodic properties it is often used for tension and pain. It can be particularly useful for menstrual cramping and PMS crankiness. (Again, think of a grasping tendril relaxing its coil just a bit.)

On a personal note, much of my experience of passionflower comes from being around the living plant. Many years ago I worked in a greenhouse that was full of hundreds of different species of plants from all over the world. I remember one particular week when I was feeling stressed and restless because I was wanting to do and be more than what I was currently doing and being! I felt drawn to the potted passionflower vine that we had growing in the greenhouse.  At the time I did not know of its herbal uses but I felt compelled to be near its beauty — perhaps because I was reminded of my childhood experiences with the plant — and I even spent some time drawing it. I discovered that to me this beautiful creature represents a balance between seeking/longing/reaching (represented by its outstretched, grasping vines) and exquisite poise and grace (represented by its otherworldly flowers). For me, simply being around the passionflower and spending quiet, still moments with it helped to calm my own longing, anxiety and restlessness, making me feel more at ease with the present moment.

HOW TO USE PASSIONFLOWER:

The aerial parts of Passiflora incarnata are used — leaves, stems and flowers  — which can then be made into tea or tincture.

Use 1 - 2 teaspoons of the dried leaf in 8 oz hot water for tea; steep for 10 minutes. Passionflower blends well with other relaxing herbs such as lemon balm, lavender, chamomile, skullcap and California poppy.

The tea is not palatable to every tongue, so the tincture is also a good option, especially for sleep issues. When using the tincture start with 1/2 of a dropper-full 30 minutes before bed and increase the dosage from there if needed.

Cautions:  Avoid passionflower in combination with other pharmaceutical sedatives, and do not use if pregnant. Also avoid this herb with low blood pressure. As with all herbs, please remember that every body is unique, and we all respond differently.

HOW TO GROW PASSIONFLOWER:

My friend Jenny Hauf, herb grower extraordinaire and owner of Muddy River Herbals was kind enough to write up some growing instructions for those of us who’d like to grow Passionflower this summer:

This sun-loving semi-succulent vine prefers relatively dry soils and can grow up to eight feet tall, so be sure to provide it with a trellis. While Passiflora incarnata is the hardiest of the passionflowers, New England specimens benefit greatly from a protected space. South-facing walls and stone fences provide ideal habitat, as they trap and conserve heat and create a microclimate warmer than the surrounding area.  Passionflower should be heavily mulched to insulate the roots from our often harsh winters. It will struggle and be at risk of winterkill if planted in heavy clay soil, frost pockets, or exposed areas of the garden.

To grow from seed, soak in warm water for two to seven days, scarify by nicking with a knife, and keep in a warm, well-lit place until seeds germinate. (An especially sunny window by a radiator works nicely.) Sow at least double what you hope to plant in your garden, as the seeds have a low rate of viability. It's a finicky germinator, taking between a few weeks and a few months to sprout, so be patient. While passionflower isn’t the simplest of plants to grow, especially here in New England, if you have the right space and enough love to give it you will be rewarded with its powerful, storied, and mesmerizing medicine. 

By the way, Jenny’s medicinal herb CSA will start delivering fresh herbs this summer at Cambridge Naturals! This is a wonderful way to get your hands on some lovingly-grown and potent local herbs. More details can be found on her website:  http://www.muddyriverherbals.com/csa/

 

Steph Zabel is an herbalist and educator based in Somerville, MA who helps urban dwellers connect with the plant world.  She teaches herbal classes, is available for individual wellness consultations, and is also the founder of HERBSTALK, Boston’s community herbal conference.

Learn more about her work at: www.flowerfolkherbs.com and www.herbstalk.org.

References:
http://chestnutherbs.com/passionflower-ecology-cultivation-botany-and-medicinal-and-edible-uses/
https://umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/herb/passionflower
The Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to New World Medicinal Plants by Matthew Wood


This blog post — Passionflower: Passiflora incarnata — is for general health information only. This blog post is not to be used as a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment of any health condition or problem. Users of this Web site should not rely on information provided on this Web site for their own health problems. Any questions regarding your own health should be addressed to your own physician or other healthcare provider.