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Native to the southern United States, Passiflora incarnata is now widely cultivated throughout the US and Europe. Passionflower is utilized for its gentle calming properties. This vining plant has showy, intricate flowers, which caught the eye of Spanish missionaries who correlated the inflorescence with the Passion of the Christ, and thus dubbed the name passion flower.
P. incarnata, in the Passifloriaceae family is a perennial climbing vine with generally 3 lobed, palmate leaves sporting, according to the late herbalist Michael Moore, “complicated but comely flowers.” Indeed, the flowers are quite striking, flamboyantly displaying five stamens and three stigmas which “protrude from the flower’s center like the antennae of a spaceship” writes Steven Foster. Further, there are five petals and sepals, and a collar of threadlike, frilly, lavender colored, coronal filaments.
Passionflowers may look like they are from the tropics, but they can actually be grown almost anywhere, including much colder areas. In fact, you may even find these seemingly delicate vines growing along the side of the road—some passionflower species can spread vigorously in warmer climates. This climbing shrub is native to the tropical parts of the United States from Virginia to Florida and westward to Missouri and Arkansas. Typically, they should be grown in full sun to partial shade, in average, but well-drained soil. A sheltered location, such as against a garden wall, is recommended for many species, which can be damaged by major winds or harsh weather.
Passionflower plants love warm weather and may need winter protection in cooler regions. In zones cooler than zone 6, they often die in the winter unless you bring them indoors. Plant them in an area that’s protected from wind, as a strong wind can damage stems and burn leaves. In addition, they do best in areas with moderate to high humidity.
The story goes that in 1569, in Peru, a Spanish doctor, Nicolas Monardes ‘discovered’ this plant. It eventually made it into the hands of Spanish missionaries who saw the flower as a physical representation of the crucifixion of Christ. The three stigmas represented the ‘nails of crucifixion’, the coronal filaments were the ‘crown of thorns’, the five stamens were the wounds, and the ten sepals were representative of ten of the disciples. Passion flower was used as a teaching tool, to tell the story of Christ to the indigenous people.
Passiflora sp. has a rich history of traditional use dating back to pre-historic times. Seeds that were thousands of years old were found around Virginia, where the Algonkian Indians thrived. Early European settlers have records of the Algonkian Indians eating the passionflower fruit. The Cherokee used P. incarnata root extensively for a variety of purposes. Additionally, various parts of the plants, including the fruits, were made into a beverage, and the leaves and young tendrils were boiled or fried and eaten. Various indigenous groups were known to use the plant as a topical poultice. P. incarnata has had documented uses in Europe going back to 1787. In the spirit world, passionflower has been used as a magical charm to attract friendships and to bring peace, and the leaves can be placed in a house to illicit harmony and lessens discord.
In addition to being a beautiful flowering vine for your garden, passionflower also has celebrated medicinal uses. Native Americans have long used passionflower to treat a variety of ailments, such as wounds, earaches, and liver problems, and it’s also thought to be beneficial in treating insomnia and reducing stress and anxiety. Passion flower has long been used by traditional herbalists for its ability to gently restore debilitated nerve centers by promoting nutrition uptake at the cellular level. It supports a calming and relaxing effect on the body during times of occasional stress.