Herbs for Health: Passionflower for Food, Health and Beauty

Passionflower has been enjoyed for both its sweet taste and its health benefits for over 5,000 years.

| April/May 1997

  • Passionflower

A supplement to The Herb Companion from the American Botanical Council and the Herb Research Foundation.

The beautiful blossom of the passionflower vine (Passiflora incarnata) is one of nature’s most intricate and delicate works. Also known as maypop or apricot vine, this fast-growing perennial herb has complex religious symbolism, a long history as a food source, and strong following as a medicinal plant.

The genus Passiflora, a member of the family Passifloraceae, explodes in diversity in the American Tropics with more than 400 species representing 95 percent of all passionflowers. The handful of temperate-­climate species includes P. incarnata, which occurs from Virginia to southern Illinois and southeast Kansas and south to Florida and Texas.

What’s in a name?
The common and generic names, passionflower and Passiflora, refer to the Passion of Christ (his suffering following the Last Supper until his death). Early Spanish missionaries saw the structure of the flower as symbolizing elements of the Crucifixion: the three spreading styles with their knobby stigmas atop the ovary representing the three nails pinning Christ to the cross; the five stamens, the hammers used to drive the nails or Christ’s five wounds; the corona of colored filaments, a halo or perhaps the crown of thorns; and the five petals and five petallike sepals, ten apostles at the Crucifixion, all but Peter and Judas. The lobed leaves and tendrils were thought to represent, respectively, the hands and whips of Christ’s persecutors. The specific name incarnata is Latin for “flesh-colored”.

Food and medicine
In A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf, the naturalist John Muir (1838–1914) speaks of the passionflower vine as having a superb flower “and the most delicious fruit I have ever eaten”. Passionflower seeds found at prehistoric Native American sites in the eastern United States indicate that the fruits were enjoyed more than 5,000 years ago. Records attest that in the seventeenth century, the vines were at least being managed for fruit production by Algonquian peoples in Virginia.

Native Americans also drank passionflower tea to soothe nerves and poulticed crushed leaves on cuts and bruises. The earliest reference on American medicinal plants, Schoepf’s Materia Medica Americana published in Germany in 1787, mentioned the use of passionflower to treat epilepsy in the aged. About 1840, Dr. L. Phares of Mississippi introduced passionflower into medicine as a treatment for nervous anxiety, but the herb received little further attention until an Atlanta professor reintroduced it into the practice of Eclectic physicians some fifty years later.

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