The passion flower (Passiflora incarnata L.) is a tall climbing plant with large, showy flowers. Many people know the plant from domestic gardens as it is sometimes cultivated as an ornamental plant. However, it originally comes from the southern part of North America. The passion flower has a calming effect on mental restlessness and tension. This enables it to assist patients suffering from sleep disorders and various nervous complaints, especially when used in combination with other medicinal plants. Learn more about the occurrence, appearance, history, effect and use of the passion flower in this article.
Occurrence and distribution of the passion flower
The is a total of over 530 species of passion flower (Passiflora). Almost all are native to South, Central or North America. Passiflora does not grow wild in Switzerland and is mainly cultivated as an ornamental plant. The flesh-coloured passion flower (Passiflora incarnata) is used medicinally. It is a native of the south-eastern USA where it is usually found in dry, sunny locations. It often grows in stony or sandy places at the edge of hedges, roads, fields or clearings. The plant is cultivated in Florida, India and sometimes also in Italy and Spain for the production of medicines.
In former times the striking flowers made various species of Passiflora popular items in botanical collections. Even today, the hardy species are popular as ornamental plants. Passiflora caerulea L., the blue passion flower in particular is often found in the garden or grown as a tub plant. But Passiflora incarnata is also sometimes cultivated in domestic gardens.
Appearance of the passion flower
Passiflora incarnata is a climbing plant that can reach heights of up to five or occasionally even ten metres. Its supports itself with corkscrew-like twisted tendrils. Its leaves are up to 15 centimetres long, with three lobes and have a long stem.
The most striking feature of the medicinal plant is its large flowers which can be seen in summer from July to September. These flowers grow up to nine centimetres in diameter with an outer fringe of ten pink to purple petals. Strikingly large stigmas and stamens are located in the centre of the flower and are surrounded by a secondary crown of about 100 fringed, wavy, thread-like petals, typical of all species of Passiflora. Berry-like, yellowish fruits form after the flowers wither. These are about the size of a hen's egg.
History and tradition of the passion flower
The name of this medicinal plant, “passion flower” and also “Passiflora”, is derived from the passion or suffering of Christ. Christian immigrants attributed religious significance to the conspicuous flower. The ten petals were said to symbolise the apostles (without Judas and Peter) and the secondary crown represented the crown of thorns. The five stamens stood for the five wounds of Christ, the three stamens for the nails of the cross.
North American settlers already used Passiflora incarnata in the early days as a herbal sedative to combat nervousness and insomnia. Historians assume that they adopted this application from the Indians.
The fruits of Passiflora incarnata are edible. They were once used by the native Americans as food and to make juice or syrup. However, the fruits of other Passiflora species are better known: passion fruit and grenadilla are also fruits of certain passion flower species.
Ingredients and effect of passion flower
The parts of the plant that grow above the ground are used medicinally, i.e. the passion flower leaves from which an infusion can be made. However, a dry extract from the passionflower is what is used for medicines.
The most important ingredients of the plant come from the group of flavonoids. These include isovitexin and isoorientin. Essential oils, essential fatty acids and coumarin derivatives are also present in very small quantities. This is why the plant extract is said to have a relaxing, calming and anxiety-relieving effect. The effect could be due to an interaction with the GABA receptors. The neurotransmitter GABA (gamma-amino-butyric acid) is the starting point for many anxiety-relieving and calming drugs. Up to the present time researchers have been unable to prove with certainty which active plant substances are responsible for the calming effect.
Passion flower as a medicine
Mental stress occurs in various situations, e.g. at work, in the family environment or when faced with examinations. This can manifest itself in symptoms such as tension, restlessness and excitability. Passion flower has a calming effect and also relieves anxiety. In medicines, Passiflora incarnata is also combined with other calming medicinal plants such as hops, lavender, lemon balm or valerian.
Due to its calming properties, passion flower is also used to encourage sleep, particularly to help patients fall asleep.
This is general information. For individual advice, please contact a specialist.