Plants have been intertwined in the history of human love affairs since Adam ate an apple. From love potions and aphrodisiacs to kisses stolen under mistletoe, herbs and flowers have played many seductive roles in private lives. Here are some snippets from the lusty side of horticulture.
Menthe [a nymph of the underworld] was surprised by Proserpine in the arms of her husband. The enraged goddess metamorphosed her rival into a plant that appears to contain, in its double smell, the coldness of fear and the ardour of love. We cultivate this plant under the name of peppermint, and we owe to it the drops that bear its name.
—The Language of Flowers, Anonymous, 1835
The seventeenth-century herbalist Nicholas Culpeper wrote that myrtle leaves “eaten by man and wife together causeth love between them.” John Gerard, who flourished half a century earlier, referred in his herbal to no fewer than thirty plants that could be used to promote lust. For example, burdock, or “burre docke”, eaten raw with salt and pepper “or boyled in the broth of fat meate is pleasant to be eaten: being taken in that manner it increaseth seed and stirreth up lust.”
Herbs and flowers sometimes offer historical hints in their names.
• Southernwood (Artemisia abrotanum) has been called lover’s plant, lad’s love, and maid’s ruin.
• Johnny-Jump-Up (Viola tricolor) is also known as heartsease, tickle-my-fancy, and love-in-idleness.
• Damiana's historical use in love potions is reflected in its Latin name, Turnera diffusa var. aphrodisiaca.
• Orchis, the generic name of orchids, means “testicle” in Greek and refers to the shape of the fleshy roots. The flower was eaten to induce fertility.
Lotus seed was used to counteract love spells; nuns nibbled the nauseating berry of the chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus) and the root of the lily to ensure their purity. Nuns’ chastity was also a concern of St. Jerome (c. a.d. 342), who suggested they avoid beans, which Aristotle centuries earlier had claimed encouraged sexual indulgence.
“Scents are surer than sights and sounds to make your heartstrings crack.”
—Rudyard Kipling, 1865–1936
Mandrake (Mandragora officinarum), or love apple, historically was prized by many as an aphrodisiac. It was believed to cure sterility in men and animals and barrenness in women. Allusions to its alluring powers go back to the book of Genesis.
The biblical Reuben, on finding a mandrake root in a field, brought it home to his mother, Leah. Rachel, her childless rival and co-wife, begged Leah for the mandrake and was willing to bargain for it: in return for the mandrake, she would let Leah sleep with their husband, Jacob, for one night.
The result was the birth nine months later of Issachar. His name is derived from the Hebrew word sachar, which means “to hire for wages”. Rachel had hired out her husband for the price of a mandrake, and his son carried a name through history that revealed the circumstances of his conception.
Go, and catch a falling star,
Get with child a mandrake root,
Tell me, where all past years are,
Or who cleft the Devil’s foot.
—John Donne, 1572?–1631
Ladies and gentlemen of the eighteenth century sometimes conducted affairs of the heart by sending tussie-mussies made from flowers that carried special meanings. Here’s a sampler of flowers used to convey sentiments, from The Language of Flowers by Kathleen M. Gips.
Sweet Marjoram: “Your passion sends blushes to my cheeks.”
Lemon Verbena: “You have bewitched me.”
Feverfew: “You light up my life.”
Angelica: “Your love is my guiding star.”
Arborvitae: “Live for me.”
Pansy: “You occupy my thoughts.”
Sage: “I will suffer all for you.”
Lemon Thyme: “My time with you is a pleasure.”
Coreopsis: “It is love at first sight.”
Hollyhock: “You are my heart’s ambition.”
Rosemary: “Your presence revives me.”
Rose: “I love you.”
Combinations of flowers in Victorian bouquets resulted in some surprisingly complex messages. For example, purple and yellow irises and hawthorn meant, “I send you a message of love on the wings of hope.” And myrtle, acanthus, madwort, and poppy proclaimed, “Love is an art and happiness a dream.”
Of course, the tussie-mussies didn’t always reflect such sweet and tender thoughts. Avoid the following, unless you mean it:
Monkshood: “Your attentions are unwelcome.”
Pasqueflower: “You have no claims.”
Garlic: “I can’t stand you.”
In his booklet “Dream Pillows and Love Potions,” herbalist Jim Long suggests these sachet formulas.
• To attract a man Blend equal parts of dried lavender, bachelor’s-buttons, and clary sage, then add a pinch of valerian and a sassafras leaf. Put it into a sachet and carry it with you wherever you go.
• To attract a woman Blend equal parts dried patchouli, rose petals, jasmine blossoms, henbane, and cinnamon. Mix, put about 3 tablespoons in each sachet, and wear inside clothing.
• The henbane was traditionally gathered by a man “just after sunrise, while naked, standing on one foot”. If you found a man willing to do that, would you want him?
Cunningham, Donna. Flower Remedies Handbook. New York: Sterling, 1992.
Cunningham, Scott. Cunningham’s Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs.
St. Paul, Minnesota: Llewellyn, 1988.
Gips, Kathleen M. The Language of Flowers. Chagrin Falls, Ohio: Pine Creek Press, 1990.
Nahmad, Claire. Earth Magic. Rochester, Vermont: Destiny Books, 1994.
Long, Jim. Dream Pillows and Love Potions. Oak Grove, Arkansas: Long Creek Herbs, 1993.
Watson, Cynthia Mervis. Love Potions. Los Angeles: Jeremy P. Tarcher, 1993.
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