Herbs for Valentine's Day

Throughout the centuries, man has looked to plants to cure what ails him, as well as to keep him hale and hearty. As far back as the Babylonians in 4000 BC and the Egyptians in 2000 BC, man has also been interested in retrieving vitality and rejuvenation, and turned to the plant kingdom to restore his youth, and sexual prowess. The search for aphrodisiacs - those agents which stimulate the sexual appetite - has included some exotic herbs, spices and foods that are supposed to restore vigor and increase libido. Some plants considered aphrodisiacs are downright dangerous, and a smidgeon too much could even kill, rather than inflame. Below is a picture of damiana, a southwestern plant believed to increase sexual powers.

Damiana - believed to increase sexual power

Many herbal preparations to restore manhood were simply tonics that would increase well-being and therefore normal functions. The excesses of fine living - dining, drinking and indolence - often cause difficulties as they interrupt normal conditions of the body. It was frequently royalty and upper classes who were in need of "adjustments" given that their luxurious living, rich diets and more idleness often led to difficulty in sexual performance. The Indian Materica Medica contains reference to over 90 aphrodisiacs. The dense populations of China and India seem to indicate a greater need for these cures, and it is interesting to note that the American Indian had very little need for such plants. Their very active lifestyle - as hunter-gatherers - probably kept them in better physical condition and less likely to need assistance in the sexual arena.

Sweet herbs were sought as sexual stimulants. Licorice root was one of the sweet herbs found in the tomb of Tutankhamen. Calamus, skirret, eryngium and even sugar and honey have all made their mark as effective for impotence and restoring virility. Sugar causes a rise in quick energy, and therefore heat in the body. And it tastes good, too, unlike some of the more strange aphrodisiacs like Spanish Fly (ground up beetles) and other nasty treatments.

Jell-like plants - such as okra, mallow and orchids - were believed to enrich the semen, perhaps because of their gelatinous nature. These plants do actually coat, protect and lubricate the mucous membranes, allowing healing and the restoration of normal function. Plants high in vitamin E are also essential for reproduction Potatoes and sweet potatoes, from the New World, were introduced to Europe as the food of the Incas, and so powerful and magical.

Marco Polo brought strange and new spices to the Europeans, and the exotic nature of nutmeg, mace, cinnamon and other highly scented spices were quickly embraced as agents to increase desire. Chocolate and vanilla have been used in a similar manner - and you thought they were only good for baking! In fact, in the seventeenth century, monks were forbidden to drink hot chocolate, as it was believed that they would succumb to feelings of lust and lose their vows of celilbacy.

The number of dangerous plants that were employed in the pursuit of sexual stimulation is staggering. The datura species - most of which contain atropine, hyoscyamine and scopolamine - were quite often found in use. In the middle ages, the traditional witches brew of datura, mandrake and henbane - all poisons - was used in small amounts as a love potion. Many mushrooms, such as Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria) and Magic Mushroon (Psilocybe mexicana), were used as much for their belief to increase sexual prowess as for their hallucinogenic properties.  Peyote and San Pedro cactus were similarly employed. Kava kava from the Pacific, khat from Africa, coca from South America, marijuana from China, India and Africa were all used for the purposes of enjoyment of pleasures of the flesh.

It is often said that the mind is where eroticism lies. If one believed that the ingestion of some of these herbs would increase desire or release inhibitions, then it may be possible to achieve this goal. Please do not try any of the plants I have suggested, as I list them here in a historical sense. A nice cup of vanilla chai or a hot chocolate spiced with cinnamon may do the trick, though, if you believe it can.

Here's to romance,

Karen