Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) is a climbing vine with large, distinctive flowers, originally from the southern parts of North America. You may have seen it growing in gardens, as it is sometimes cultivated as an ornamental plant. Studies have shown that passionflower has a calming, balancing effect on people suffering from nervous tension and restlessness. This also makes it useful for alleviating sleep disorders, test anxiety and various other nervous conditions – particularly when combined with other medicinal plants. Read on to find out about the history, effects and applications of the passionflower – and the story behind its name.
Passionflower’s origins and habitats
There are over 530 types of passionflower (Passiflora). Almost all of them are native to South, Central or North America. Here in Switzerland, passionflower is not found in the wild, but it is sometimes cultivated as an ornamental plant. The purple-coloured passionflowers are the ones that are used for medicinal purposes (Passiflora incarnata). They are native to south-eastern USA, where they are usually found in dry, sunny locations. They often grow in rocky or sandy places at the edge of hedges, roads, fields or clearings. Florida and India are the main places that cultivate passionflower for the production of herbal medicines; but, passionflower is also grown in Italy and Spain.
Historically, the passionflower’s distinctive blooms were must-have specimens in botanical collections. Today, these perennial species are still popular as ornamental plants. The blue passionflower, Passiflora caerulea, is particularly popular and can often be found in gardens or as a pot plant. But even Passiflora incarnata is sometimes grown in gardens here in Switzerland.
What does the passionflower look like?
Passiflora incarnata is a vine that usually grows up to five metres in height, occasionally reaching up to ten metres. It attaches itself to trellises or other plants using its corkscrew-like winding tendrils. Its three-lobed leaves are up to 15 centimetres long and have a long stem.
The most remarkable features of these medicinal plants are their large flowers, which are on display in summer between July and September. The flowers can grow up to nine centimetres across and are ringed by ten petals ranging from pink to purple in colour. The centre of the flower is dominated by strikingly large stigmas and stamens. These are surrounded by a corona consisting of around 100 curly, thread-like appendages that are typical of all varieties of passionflower. After the flower has withered, the plant forms a yellowish, berry-like fruit that is about the size of an egg.
Historical usage of Passiflora
The names of this medicinal plant – passionflower and Passiflora – refer to the Passion of Christ, that is, the sufferings of Jesus Christ. Christian missionaries attributed a religious meaning to the distinctive flower. The ten petals were supposed to symbolise the apostles (without Judas and Peter), while the corona represents the crown of thorns. The five stamens stand for the five wounds of Christ, while the three stigmas represent the nails hammered into the cross.
Passiflora incarnata was used by North American settlers as a herbal sedative to relieve nervous tension and insomnia. Historians suspect they copied this usage from the indigenous population.
The fruit produced by Passiflora incarnata are edible. Native North Americans used them as a source of food and processed them to make juice and syrup. However, there are other fruits produced by varieties of Passiflora that are much more well known, such as passion fruit and granadillas.
Active ingredients and their effects
For medicinal purposes, the aerial parts of the plant are used (i.e. the leaves). They can be used to brew passionflower tea. Typically, however, passionflower leaves are made into a dry extract for use in medical preparations.
The plant’s most important ingredients come from a group of chemicals known as flavonoids. These include compounds such as isovitexin and isoorientin. Passionflower also contains very small amounts of essential oils, essential fatty acids and coumarin derivatives. The relaxing, calming and balancing effects of passionflower extract have been proven in studies and laboratory tests. Those tests determined its effectiveness by analysing its interactions with the GABA receptors. The GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) neurotransmitter is targeted by many anxiety-relieving and calming medications. Previously, researchers had been unable to definitively prove which herbal ingredients were responsible for the calming effect.
What is Passiflora incarnata used for?
Passionflower extract is mainly used to relieve restlessness, anxiety, stress and nervous tension.
Nervous tension and test anxiety
Passionflower extract relieves tension and has a calming effect. In medications like zeller entspannung, Passiflora incarnata is combined with other calming medicinal plants such as valerian root, lemon balm and butterbur in order to obtain the maximum effect. This gentle plant-based medicine thereby provides an alternative to synthetic sedatives. Test anxiety, irritability, general anxiety and nervous tension can often be alleviated by a taking passionflower preparation.
Physical ailments linked to nervous tension
Stress and tension can also have physical consequences. Consequently, herbal sedatives containing passionflower extract, such as zeller entspannung, often have a positive effect on various stress-related physical symptoms as well. These include symptoms such as abdominal cramps.
Nervous tension can also lead to cardiac problems, such as a rapid heartbeat, heart palpitations or a tight sensation in the chest. For these kinds of symptoms, there are more specialised preparations available, such as zeller herz und nerven, which comes in the form of drops or film-coated tablets. This preparation contains a combination of calming and cardiotonic herbal extracts that is specifically designed to alleviate cardiac conditions linked to stress and anxiety.
Herbal medicines containing passionflower are also ideal for people whose stress and anxiety levels prevent them from getting a good night’s sleep. Even people who only occasionally have difficulty falling asleep or sleeping through the night can benefit from passionflower’s calming effects.
Please note: Even herbal medicines like passionflower extract can have side effects and interact with other medications. Please read the package insert and talk to your doctor or pharmacist if you require further information.