Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata)
by Krystal Thompson
Common Names: Wild passion flower, maypop, apricot vine, old field apricot, Holy-Trinity flower, molly-pop, passion vine, pop-apple, granadilla, maycock, white sarsaparilla, purple pa.
Description/Taxonomy: Passiflora incarnata is a fast-growing perennial vine belonging to the wildly diverse Passiflora genus. Passiflora is native to the tropical and semi-tropical regions of the Americas, with over 400 species (95% of all passionflowers!) represented in the tropics alone (4).
Intricate, three-inch lavender flowers are short-stalked from leaf axils. The petals and sepals (supportive region of the bloom) link a fringe of thin and wavy hair-like segments. The pistil and stamens are also showy, and bloom from June to September (8).
Paul Bergner suggests that the look of the intricate and delicate flower is a visual clue to its indications, that it is most successful in fragile and delicate conditions, namely pediatric or geriatric use (3).
The pulpy fruit or “maypop” develops in two to three months after flowering and may be harvested from July to October (8).
History: The first recorded use of Passionflower dates back to the Aztecs, and was eventually widely cultivated in Europe after the Spanish conquistador era. The name Passionflower is derived from flos passionis, a translation of fior della passione, a name applied to the plant in Italy to note religious symbolism. The floral structure was seen as symbolizing the implements of the crucifixion, a symbolic reflection of the Passion of the Christ (4,7). The white and purple in the flower were said to symbolize heavenly purity, five stamens for the five wounds Jesus suffered, and three style for the three nails used to bind him to the cross (9). The species name incarnata means “made of flesh or flesh-colored” (4).
Nicolas Monardes, a Spanish doctor working in Peru, was the first to document the use of Passionflower in 1569. He brought the plant back to Europe with him and is in that way perhaps responsible for its spread in Western use (9). The plant is thought to be introduced to North American medicine in the mid 1800’s, possibly via Europe and/or through Native and slave uses in the south. It quickly became a staple in the US naturopath’s medicine cabinet. Passionflower was included in a 1921 list of the top ten best selling herbs by the Lloyd Brothers company in Cincinnati- the leading distributor of botanical extracts to physicians at the time (3). Passiflora incarnata is currently listed in the pharmacopoeias of Great Britain, the US, India, France, Germany, and Switzerland among others (11).
Parts Used: Native Americans used the root in poultice preparation for boils, cuts, earaches, and inflammation (8). Typically the aerial parts are the most commonly used medicinally. Though is it not noted to have any medicinal properties, the passionflower fruit is edible with a pleasant sweet flavor and is high in niacin (vitamin B3). It’s commonly used to make jams or jellies. The young leaves and buds are also commonly prepared and eaten as vegetables, and sometimes the flowers are made into syrup (10). A delicious and medicinal treat!
Herbal Actions: Sedative: herbs that calm the nervous system and reduce stress throughout the body. Many sedatives are also classified as nervines, hypnotics, and antispasmodics. Hypnotic: herbs that will help to induce deep and successful sleep. Anti-spasmodic: herbs that can prevent or ease muscular cramps or spasms. Anodyne: herbs that can ease the sensation of pain.
Constituents: Flavonoids and alkaloids, including harmala, though there is no evidence to support that this alkaloid occurs in amounts large enough to be of concern for kidney toxicity (3). While flavonoids are generally considered among the most active constituents of Passionflower, there has been little definitiveness for attributing its sedative action to a single chemical compound or group of compounds (4). Many of the sources that I perused to compile this information listed the constituents very generally and noted that the research on this matter is inconclusive.
Medicinal Benefits: Passionflower is commonly utilized to respond to insomnia, aiding transition into a natural sleep without any “narcotic” hangover. Passionflower works directly on the central nervous system to help lull us to sleep. It is important to note that Passionflower will not force sleep, but rather supports normal sleep that may have been disrupted by stress, muscle spasms, etc.
It may also be used wherever an antispasmodic is necessary, such as in seizures or Parkinson’s disease. It is also effective for nerve pain and viral infections of the nerves known as shingles (1). Furthermore, it’s been chronicled to be of use for delirium tremens, whooping cough, drug withdrawal, teething, hysteria, mania, and even flatulence (2). As exemplified here in its indications, evidence suggests that Passionflower may have a benzodiazepine-like calming action (5).
Passionflower has the most defined sedative effect of all the nervines. It is extremely effective in cases of circular thinking that cause insomnia. “I have had patients tell me it’s like they have a talk radio station on in their heads and they can’t find the off switch,” said David Winston. “Passionflower is the off switch” (7).
Passionflower is known to be a depressant to the motor side of the spinal cord (hence its use for muscle spasms), slightly reducing arterial pressure while increasing the rate of respiration (12). It is also helpful where functional heart palpitations are present and stress is due to cares of the heart, as opposed to hops which are similar in action but better suited to intellectual worry, or cares of the mind (3).
In Chinese medicine, Passiflora is indicated to ground ascendant liver yang that is rushing upward and disrupting the heart (6). This type of “wind-like” movement is a common theme of conditions for which a TCM practitioner would choose Passionflower. Other examples of this are nervous conditions that come and go suddenly with symptoms of tremors or tics in multiple locations (again, think transient or wind-like). Furthermore, Passionflower is particularly good for idealistic Fire types who are prone to both physical and emotional disorders of the heart. These types need to feel aware of and connected to their own sense of personal meaning, and are prone to “burn out” in cases where that connection is blurred or weakened. This emotional burnout can manifest as deep apathy or mania, and can catalyze physical inflammation. Passionflower is well suited for all of these conditions (6).
Energetically, Passionflower is indicated for those who “need to have their hearts calmed and grounded so that they can be connected to others” (6). It suits those that are prone to anxiety, hysteria, and heart symptoms when overstimulated. When “Passionflower types” go into overload they become exhausted physically and mentally in a way that prevents them from connecting to others, focused inward on their own sensations and feelings. This can cause long-term stress, a condition for which Passionflower is perfectly suited. TCM echoes this by indicating Passionflower for Qi imbalance caused by an overload rather than a blockage (6).
In Flower Essence Therapy, Passionflower is indicated for those that need to soften and open up to love, especially when withdrawal is caused by hypersensitivity, and in Homeopathy its main indication is for nervous troubles that are the result of over exhaustion and depletion of vital force (6).
As you can see, Passiflora incarnata is an excellent ally for general tension. Tension that manifests as sleeplessness, tension that manifests as muscle pain, or tension that manifests as anxious thoughts. What I love about this plant is the combination of efficacy and the lack of lingering. For me personally, the effect of strong sedative plants tend to hang out for a bit longer than I need them to. But Passionflower is the perfect companion: powerful enough to get the job done, kind and gentle enough to not overstay its welcome.
Allies: Passionflower is commonly paired with Valerian and Hawthorn to aid digestive spasms, gastritis, and colitis. It is not necessarily strong enough to be utilized as a singular painkiller, but works well when combined with other anodyne herbs such as Jamaican Dogwood, Cramp Bark, and Valerian (3). Passionflower also pairs well with Motherwort for menopausal-specific insomnia, and Skullcap for bruxism (grinding one’s teeth during sleep) (7).
An Italian research group tested Passionflower alone and in various combinations with other herbs which were also considered to have sedative properties, and a synergistic association of sedative activity at high dosage was observed (4). In other words, Passionflower plays well with others!
Cautions and Contraindications: As mentioned before, Passionflower is considered extremely safe and gentle. It’s only known contraindications are, as is the case with many plant medicines, pharmaceuticals. Passionflower may elevate the effects of prescription sedatives, antispasmodics and anxiolytics, so use cautiously (or not at all) together. And do not ever use Passionflower with MAOIs (7).
Specific Medication writer John Fyfe, MD, states “That passiflora is not toxic is evidenced by the fact that it has been given in 10-15 drop doses every hour for six and eight hours, to infants less than one year old, without the slightest evidence of deleterious effects. It has also been administered to the very sick and weak without harmful action” (3).
Dosage and Method of Delivery: Passionflower is most commonly administered as tea, tinctures, and encapsulations. It is also sometimes found in relaxing bath blends and sleeping pillows, and even sedative chewing gums.
Dosing suggestion varies quite a bit as there is a wide range for cause of need for Passionflower. According to Boericke’s Materia Medica, “large dosage of the mother tincture” (30-60 drops) should be repeated several times per day (2). However Priest and Priest suggest a maximum dose of 15 drops, and the German monograph suggests six grams of the herb per day in an infusion. It is always the best practice to consult with a licensed healthcare professional to figure out which dosing of this or any herb is best for your specific needs. Lastly, a good note to bear in mind regardless of dosing: Felter & Lloyd’s suggests that Passiflora is slow acting and more effective in the second twenty-four hours rather than the first (3).
Cultivation: Passionflower should be planted in early spring. It is considered fully hardy but frost tender, and fairly easy to grow. It likes partial to full sun and well-drained but reliably moist soils. It is not overly sensitive to particular soil acidity or alkalinity (13).
The Herbal Handbook- David Hoffman, 1988
Materia Medica, Excerpt: The Tinctures. William Boericke, 1901.
Medical Herbalism: Materia Medica and Pharmacy, Paul Bergner, 2001
The Use of Nervines in the Treatment of Mental and Nervous Disorders, Althea Northage Orr, 2012
Nervines: Complementary Herbs for Adaptogens, David Winston, 2013
Purple Passionflower Fact Sheet, www.plants.usda.gov, 2008
Passiflora incarnata L. (Passionflower) extracts elicit GABA currents in hippocampal neurons in vitro, and show anxiogenic and anticonvulsant effects in vivo, varying with extraction method from Phytomedicine, 2010 via US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2941540/
A Modern Herbal, Maud and Margaret Grieve, 1971
Royal Horticultural Society