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Passionate About A Good Night's Sleep? Passiflora Can Help!

If we were to ask you how you think passion flower "helps out" in the bedroom, your first guess doesn't count. We've blogged about a lot of plant species with traditional uses for that kind of help, but some species in the Passiflora genus — despite a name that evokes images of smutty paperback covers — let you skip right past the "I've got a headache" phase and go directly towards a restful sleep.

But first, stay awake long enough to learn about general Passiflora history and care, and the species most frequently used for medicinal purposes: Passiflora incarnata

How did passionflower get its name?

Okay. Buzzkill time. Passion is derived from passionis, the Latin word for the state of suffering. And back in 2004, many of us suffered through Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ, titled after the traditional reference to Jesus' torture and crucifixion at the hands of Romans. Passionflower is so named because the flower's complex structure resembles symbols associated with the Passion. 

"When Christian missionaries arrived in South America in the 16th century, they found a plant which they felt was a good omen for their mission. They called it the passion flower because to them it symbolized the death of Christ. The five sepals and five petals of the flower, which are similar in appearance, represent the disciples without Peter and Judas. The double row of colored filaments, known as the corona, signifies the halo around Christ's head or the crown of thorns. The five stamens and the three spreading styles with their flattened heads symbolize the wounds and the nails respectively. The vine tendrils resemble the whips used to scourge Christ." — Indiana University's Department of Biology "Plants in Motion" program

How're you feeling now, baby? Yeah, that's what we thought. After that little story, you might need a little something to chill you out. We'll get to that in a minute. First, here are some other names used for various Passiflora. Some are regional, and some are species-specific. 

  • Apricot vine
  • Passion vine
  • Passionfruit
  • Passiflora (italics free!)
  • Maypop
  • Molly-pop 
  • Pop-apple
  • Granadilla
  • Holy Trinity flower
  • Mayapple
  • Old field apricot

Have you noticed the "pop" theme? Drop a passionflower fruit on a hard surface, and you'll find out why. 

Where do passion flowers come from? Where do they grow?

Passionflower is probably the most exotic-looking ornamental and edible plant, and yet one of the most spectacular and versatile Passiflora species (Purple passionflower, or P. incarnata) is native to the southeastern quarter of the continental United States. There are upwards of 600 Passiflora species, mostly originating in the New World, Asia, and Australia. Some are best known for their flowers, while others are coveted for their round, delicious fruits.

Most Passiflora species are fast-growing vines, but there are a few classified as shrubs or trees. Their leaves vary widely in shape and size, even on the same plant. 

Passiflora enthusiasts create cultivars in their own gardens, registering them with Passiflora Society International. In the years 2014 and 2015 alone, members registered 42 new cultivars, documenting the most specific details from leaf shape to fragrance to pollen color. 

Most botanists agree that P. incarnata is one of the more adaptable and forgiving species, but with all those flower nerds out there hybridizing spectacular new varieties, there are passion flowers that will do well almost anywhere given a tiny bit of coddling. 

How is Passiflora used in herbal medicine or the kitchen?

A recent study found that Passiflora incarnata extract helps laboratory rats fall asleep and experience a longer overall sleep period, though it appears to shorten the important rapid eye movement (REM) phase. Our take? If you can't fall asleep in the first place, you can kiss REM sleep goodbye altogether. Decide for yourself after learning more about basic sleep science

Not all species share the same sedative properties as P. incarnata. Passiflora edulis is a popular species commercially grown for its exceptional fruit (thus the Latin name, basically meaning "stuff your face"—something we recommend you do at a world-famous Toronto restaurant that shares the species' botanical moniker.) It doesn't have the same hypnotic compounds, though the flowers are just as easy on the eyes.

passionflower blossom and fruit

According to Native American Herbalism, North American indigenous cultures used P. incarnata for a variety of ailments, including: 

  • Asthma
  • Anxiety
  • Gastrointestinal spasms
  • Fatigue
  • Alcohol and drug withdrawal symptoms
  • Fluid retention
  • Cuts
  • Bruises
  • Inflammation
  • Fungal infections
  • Hyperactivity in children (in conservative doses)
  • Earache

All parts of Passiflora incarnata are edible and safe for consumption, and the leaves are considered to make excellent herbal tea. Young shoots are delicious in salads and were a staple in traditional Native American diets. The species' three-inch-long, egg-shaped fruits are a tart treat in the yellow-green growth phase, and divinely, fragrantly sweet once they've taken on a deep red color with a slightly wrinkled texture. The flowers' fragrance is often described as similar to that of carnations. 

How do you eat passionfruit? 

Whether you're going for the pucker factor or holding out for the fruit's jasmine-scented, slightly citrus, honey-like flavor, you can simply slice open the fruit and scoop out the pulp and black, pomegranate-like seeds. Eat it all raw (seeds included) or turn them into smoothies, marmalades, cold beverages, or sorbets. 

Try these passionfruit recipes using stolen or store-bought passion fruit, and you'll be building your own trellises and ordering passionflower seeds before you know it. 

Passion Fruit Tart by Blossom to Stem: This recipe uses passion fruit curd for its filling, and throws in the tagline "Like lemon but better." We agree. The author's method for preparing the curd is easy and useful for other passion fruit desserts. 

Easy, Tart, Fresh Passion Fruit Limeade by Coco Verde: The Boston-based vegan Latino food catering company's website could use some work on its website, but they've nailed the recipe for a refreshing summer beverage. You can always add booze later, and serve it with your favorite pollo or cerdo dish. We won't tell. 

Passion Fruit and Mango Jam by SmartSexyPaleo: This is a very simple recipe, and we recommend the vanilla option and the author's advice to let the jam "age" in the fridge for about a week after you make it. 

Kombucha Passion Fruit Spritz from Always Use Butter: We hope we didn't lose you at "kombucha" because this mocktail (oh boy, we just lost the other half of our audience) might make you re-evaluate the way you think about healthy, non-alcoholic fermented beverages. 

Avocado Chicken Salad with Passion Fruit Vinaigrette from Whole Food Bellies: You can find several outstanding passion fruit dressing recipes online, but we love how this one is for an entire meal of complementary flavors. 

How to grow passionflower from seed

Germinating Passiflora seeds is a bit tricky, but once they've become established, these plants are fairly easy to maintain. Their vines, which can grow as long as 30 feet, have delicate but strong tendrils to climb and grip trellises, arbors, fences, and lattices. Bloom time typically begins in mid-summer, with fruits maturing late summer to early fall. The blooms only last a single day, but under ideal circumstances — fertile soil and occasional feeding — blooms will continue through the season.

Let's use Passiflora incarnata as our reference, as it's the easiest to grow in most North American climates. It's evergreen in USDA Hardiness Zones 7 to 9, and in Zone 6, they'll die back to the ground in fall and regrow in the spring. In Zones 6 and below, you can keep them in large, wide pots (they have shallow, spreading roots) and bring dormant plants into an outbuilding where they won't freeze, or make room for them indoors or in a heated greenhouse for year-round foliage. 

  • Water requirements: Passionflowers like their roots to dry out in between watering, but shallow roots dry fast. Mulch to slow evaporation in hot regions, and err on the side of maintaining consistent moisture.
  • Sunlight requirements: At least six hours of full sun, though in desert climates, they'd do best in filtered or part shade in the hottest time of day. 
  • Soil requirements: Well-draining soil with lots of compost. Neutral pH, ranging between 6 to 7.5.
  • Fertilizer: Vines grown for their fruit have different nutrient requirements than do the same species when grown in the garden, and Passiflora is sensitive to overfeeding. We recommend you read this article on fertilizing passionflower vines by Bonnie L. Grant, Certified Urban Agriculturist, so you can make an informed decision based on your goals and climate.
  • Pruning and deadheading: There's not a whole lot to do here. Trim vines if they get too feisty, and pluck and toss faded blooms. Passiflora can be invasive in some areas, so take care that they don't overtake your garden.

With minimal care, your passionflower vines will reward you with gorgeous foliage and blooms, a few tasty fruits, and tons of visiting butterflies and bees. Even if you don't get blooms the first season (common where they don't keep their foliage year-around), the large leaves add visual interest and, if provided the right structures, shade, and privacy.

Germinating tips for passionflower seeds

The earlier you start passionflower plants, the better — especially if you want them to bloom their first year. Passionflower seeds are notoriously stubborn and require a bit of pre-treatment before planting. Try soaking the seeds for 12 hours in room-temperature, half-strength orange juice (or, if you have it, full-strength passionflower pulp). The acid will help eat away at the seed's natural chemical preservative and tough shell. Otherwise, soak them in warm, unchlorinated water for 24 hours. You can experiment with other germinating techniques explained in our blog post, "The Dirt on Successful Seed Germination."

Bury your passionflower seeds no more than 1/4" deep in rich potting soil, and place your seedling trays or pots under grow lights or in a warm, sunny window. Their ideal germination temperature is between 65°F and 70°F. You may want to plant two seeds per pot to increase your odds or grow them in undivided nursery trays so you can pick out and transfer seedlings once they've emerged. 

Transplant seedlings outdoors or into their permanent pots once they've produced 4-5 healthy leaves and daytime temperatures are consistently above 65°F. We recommend a hardening-off period of about a week. 

Seed Needs: Easing suffering and inspiring passion since 2006

We didn't go into detail about propagating passion flower from cuttings, because we know our customers can take on a challenge if they're given the right support. That's why we encourage you to contact us if you need help solving gardening problems, or if you have questions about our selection of fresh, healthy, disease-resistant seeds!

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