Passion Flower (Passiflora incarnata)

Photo by Stephen Foster

Passion Flower gets its common name from Spanish explorers, who viewed the cross-like shape at the center of the flower as a symbol of the agony or passion of Christ’s crucifixion, the “Passion of our Lord.” The symbolism is appropriate for a plant that helps to relieve stress and pain.

A fast-growing, perennial, creeping vine that produces exquisite flowers, passion flower is native to the tropical and semi-tropical areas in the southern United States, Mexico, and Central and South America. Primarily known for its tranquilizing effects, this herb was an old remedy in the Yucatan for treating children with insomnia, hysteria and convulsions.

The early or the North American Algonquian Indians, made a tea of the leaves for its calming effect on the nerves. Other North American Indian tribes include the use of passion flower for boils, inflammation and earaches.

Introduced into the Western materia medica in the 1840’s, passion flower became popular with Eclectic physicians in the later half of the 19th century who valued it for its calming and sedative properties. It is a sympathetic nerve antagonist (it sedates the sympathetic nervous system responsible for the “fight-or-flight” response).

It also has sedative and antispasmodic (muscle relaxing) effects, attributed to the harman alkaloids it contains. These alkaloids are considered the “active” constituents of the plant.

Passion flower’s ability to relax motor nerves and reduce muscle spasms makes it an effective remedy for anxiety, stress, nervous agitation and insomnia. It is particularly good for mild to moderate anxiety due to worry or excess work. Nervous problems that create gastrointestinal symptoms also tend to respond well to passion flower.

A double-blind study found it to be as effective in treating anxiety symptoms as synthetic benzodiazepines without the adverse effects of being habit forming. This makes it a viable alternative to synthetic tranquilizers.

Passion flower has also been used to treat neuralgia, restlessness, depression, convulsions and epilepsy. It is a safe and gentle remedy for children who are easily excited, restless and have problems concentrating in school. Southern herbalists say it is a specific remedy for people plagued by excessive mental chatter.  It quiets the mind, promoting greater alertness during the day and better sleep at night.

There is some experimental support for the use of Passion flower in alcohol withdrawal, asthma, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), chronic pain, drug addiction, Epstein-Barr virus, gastrointestinal discomfort (nervous stomach), high blood pressure, insomnia, menopausal symptoms (hot flashes), nerve pain, and general pain due to tension.

Besides its use as an herbal remedy, passion flower has become well known for its culinary use in commercial drinks. South Americans use passion flower fruits in a variety of ways: from soup to mixed drinks, in fruit punch and desserts, and as an ice cream topping.

Passion flower is available as a single herb. Typical dose is one capsule two to four times daily. More can be taken in times of severe stress, but large doses can cause nausea and vomiting. Passion flower is also an ingredient in many nervine formulas—Stress-J, Nutri-Calm, Nerve Eight, Nerve Control, Herbal Sleep and GABA Plus. In our modern, stress-filled world, it’s good to have herbs like passion flower to calm our anxiety, agitation and help us relax and get the sleep we need.

Selected References

The Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to New World Medicinal Plants by Matthew Wood
PDR for Herbal Medicines, 4th Edition
published by Medical Economics Company
The Energetics of Western Herbs by Peter Holmes.
The Illustrated Herb Encyclopedia by Kathi Keville.
The Wild Rose Scientific Herbal by Terry Willard, Ph.D.
The Comprehensive Guide to Nature’s Sunshine Products by Tree of Light

This article was updated from an article previously published in Nature's Field. Paula Perrety assisted with the research and writing of the original article.