Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) also goes by the name passion vine, apricot vine, or Corona de Cristo. It’s a hardy, climbing vine that is noted for its beautiful flowers and tasty fruit. This perennial creeper is native to Central and South America, the West Indies, and the southeast region of the United States. The climbing tendrils can be trained so that the vine can easily grow on a trellis.
The aerial parts are normally collected during the flowering and fruiting period and used either fresh or dried. The leaves and stems of the plant provide the mild sedative activity.
Passionflower was cultivated by Native Americans, both for its edible fruit and for its medicinal value. In the nineteenth century, it was a popular treatment for insomnia.
Europeans learned about passionflower from the Aztecs of Mexico, who used it as a sedative to treat insomnia and nervousness. The plant was taken to Europe, where it is now widely cultivated and used in herbal medicine (as a tea or as capsules) in combination with valerian and lemon balm. There appears to be a synergism between the components in this mixture. This herbal preparation is a useful treatment for tenseness, restlessness, and irritability, and provides mild sedation without any addictive properties.
Egg-shaped fruits two inches long follow the fragrant lavender flowers that appear in the summer. Passion-flower extract may be used in foods and beverages as a flavoring agent. The ripe fruits can be eaten raw or used for making jams, jellies, and drinks and is commonly added to fruit salads to provide a rich tropical flavor. The flowers may also be made into syrup.
Passionflower fruit contains delicious juicy yellow pulp mixed with many small black seeds. The fruit has recently been found to be a great source of lycopene—the health-promoting red carotenoid pigment also found in tomatoes, watermelon, pink grapefruit, and papaya. Passion fruit juice contains phytochemicals that inhibit neoplastic changes in cells, thus reducing the growth of a tumor. The herb is known to contain a variety of flavonoids and other health-promoting phenolic compounds.
Symbols of the Passion
Spanish missionaries gave the name passionflower to the plant because of the unusual nature of the violet flowers that, in their eyes, contained elements symbolic of the passion of Christ. Its coronal threads were seen as a symbol for the crown of thorns, the curling tendrils represented the whip, the five anthers (the part that contains pollen) symbolized the wounds. The three stigmas denoted the nails on the cross, the ovary depicted the hammer, and the five petals and five sepals of the flower portrayed the 10 “true” disciples (Peter and Judas were considered unfaithful).
Today passionflower is recognized as an effective agent for the management and treatment of generalized anxiety disorders such as nervous restlessness, stress, nervous tension, irritability, and anxiety in addition to mild insomnia, and gastrointestinal disorders of nervous origin.
Passionflower appears in sleep aid formulations and is reported to generate a degree of antispasmodic activity. Its active components appear to attenuate the chemical dependence produced by addiction-prone substances such as nicotine, alcohol, and cannabis.
No side effects that are typically observed with conventional tranquilizers, such as an impairment of memory or motor skills, are seen with the use of passionflower. In addition, there are no contraindications for its use.
The typical dose is about 1 to 2 grams of finely chopped herb. Steeping a teaspoon of dried herb in half a cup of boiling water for 15 minutes makes a tea. Two to three cups of such tea may be drunk throughout the day.
Kava and Valerian
The most commonly used herb for the treatment of nervous anxiety and stress is kava kava (Piper methysticum). It’s been successfully used for many years throughout Europe as a mild sedative and is reported to provide relief of anxiety disorders, stress, insomnia, and restlessness. Recent reports of liver toxicity have raised concern about the long-term use of kava. Consequently, several countries have restricted the sale of kava-containing products.
Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) is another well-known herb used as a mild tranquilizer, and the efficacy of its mild sedative activity is well documented. The Commision E has approved its use for restlessness and insomnia. Valerian boasts a great safety record with long-term use and is recommended as a milder alternative to Valium.
Other herbal agents useful for the safe and effective treatment of stress and anxiety include hops, lemon balm, and lavender.
While these herbs may be just what you need to help you cope with daily stresses, may I suggest that you cultivate a relationship with the One who created the herbs. Only in the presence of God can we find full release from care.
Winston J. Craig, Ph.D., R.D., is professor of nutrition at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.