An Affectionate Look at Herbal Aphrodisiacs

There are three categories for herbal aphrodisiacs

| October/November 1995

Mention “aphrodisiac” and the reaction may be a blush, a good-natured laugh, a scornful sniff, or a hushed query, “Do you think they really work?” Amend the image to “herbal aphrodisiac” and the imagination is set loose: herbs tucked into pillows and under mattresses, quaint recipes and rhymes from bygone eras, a mysterious tincture slipped into a claret cup by a lovesick swain. Practical use crosses into history and folklore, reminding us poignantly and sometimes humorously that love troubles and physical embarrassments are among the oldest human conditions. It is curious to explore the role of herbs through history in this dimension of human health, happiness, and emotional well-being.

Named for Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and beauty, an aphrodisiac is—by broad definition—any substance or process that stimulates or intensifies human sexual desire. Theoretically, an aphrodisiac can do anything from enhancing love to aggravating lust. An aphrodisiac may include ingredients that play on the senses of taste, touch, smell, sight, and hearing. It may actually induce physical changes in the human body, or it may enhance a mood by its sensual associations or by its power to stimulate the recollection of pleasant erotic memories.

What an aphrodisiac cannot do, however great the claims of historical recipes to the contrary, is to induce a state of erotic or emotional attraction that did not exist previously. For centuries, a love-philter that really works on an unwitting or unwilling victim has been sought with all the urgency—and success—of a recipe for turning base metal into gold. Substances that induce a temporary state of engorgement, hallucination, or dementia may have been tempting to the desperate, but they were not true aphrodisiacs and were then, as they are now, dangerous or deadly.

Having dutifully made that disclaimer, let me turn to the more lighthearted aspects of herbal aphrodisiacs. I classify aphrodisiacs in three categories: substances whose sensual appeal has strong erotic associations, those that enhance physical health and ease and thus free the body and mind for erotic connections, and those that in themselves reputedly have a physical or erotic effect.


The first group, substances with sensual appeal and erotic associations for many people, includes many romantic traditions: flowers, chocolate, wine, perfume, exotic locations, unbound hair, firelight, candlelight, moonlight, lea­ther. History supplies us with a rich bounty of recipes and customs in this category in which herbs feature prominently. Herbal cosmetics, hair rinses, and baths refresh, soothe, and scent the body. They are a delight both to the user and to the object of his or her affection. The idea is an old one: the Roman goddess Venus herself is said to have used myrtle as a douche and a skin wash to make herself more seductive. A legend tells of an elderly medieval queen who bathed in an infusion of rosemary to regain her youthful health and strength; she then used a combination of rosemary and thyme in a charm to help her find and win a virile, loving young husband. An early-nineteenth-century New Englander described a lover’s bedtime ritual as including cleansing teeth with salt and mint and bathing with herb-scented soap: “She smelled of lavender, so clean and good.”

Simple and Effective

Substances that enhance physical health cross the centuries to include herbs that are valued in healing today. Modern books about herbal health care offer many recipes to cure or alleviate ailments and enhance well-being. Many familiar herbs appear again and again in these recipes. Those associated with sexual health include, among others, parsley, carnations, nasturtium, lady’s-mantle, celery, ginger, juniper, ginseng, cloves, laurel, and galangal. Ginseng is widely known and respected as a whole-body health enhancer, as is garlic. Garlic as an aphrodisiac has some style limitations, of course; it tastes terrific, but both partners must eat it or one may be asked to sleep in another room. There are few aphrodisiac formulas simpler or more effective than a healthy body, a happy heart, and opportunity.

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