Many plants have been claimed as such, upon what grounds beggars the imagination. Who, for instance, would have thought that PURSLANE, or NETTLE ever enjoyed such a reputation, even as a flagellant?. The seeds, so it was claimed, powerfully stimulate the sexual functions, and they figured, too, in a Greek remedy for impotence, when an ointment was made from the roots of narcissus with the seeds of nettle or anise. On the other hand, “to avoid lechery, take nettle-seed and bray it in a mortar with pepper and temper it with honey or with wine, and it shall destroy it…”. In other words, exactly the opposite of the aphrodisiac claim. Another unlikely claimant, also ambivalent, is LETTUCE. The Romans certainly thought of it as promoting sexual potency, and the Akan belief, from West Africa, was that Min, a sky fertility god, was associated with a plant assumed to be some kind of lettuce, believed to stimulate procreation. The reason is that the juice of some of the lettuces is milky, resembling either, in the female aspect, the flow of milk, or in the male aspect, semen. By Gerard’s time, he asserts that the juice “cooleth and quencheth the naturall seed if it be too much used…”. Women were wary of lettuce, for it would cause barrennness, so an old superstition runs. It probably arose because it was thought that the plant itself was sterile. It is recorded that women in Richmond, Surrey, would carefully count the lettuce in the garden, for too many would make them sterile, but what the maximum acceptable number was is not revealed.
CYCLAMEN was reckoned aphrodisiac, a reputation that it enjoyed since ancient times. In fact, it became the very symbol of voluptuousness. Gerard repeated the belief, and recommended that the root should be “beaten and made up into tro-chisches, or little flat cakes”, when “it is reported to be a good amorous medicine to make one in love, if it be inwardly taken”. GARLIC in this category is difficult to understand. Chaucer’s Somnour, who was “lecherous as a sparwe”, was particularly fond of it: “Wei loved he garleek, onyons and eek lekes”. And it had the same reputation in Jewish folklore. PARSLEY wine had this reputation, too, but a good many of the superstitions pertaining to this herb are connected with conception and childbirth — “sow parsley, sow babies” and so on. Surely it was nothing more than sympathetic magic that led Gerard to recommend ASH seeds to “… stirre up bodily luste specially being poudered with nutmegs and drunke”. WALNUT is mentioned as an aphrodisiac in Piers Plowman, probably on the strength of its being an ancient symbol of marriage, the nuts being of two halves. NUTMEGS were reckoned to be aphrodisiac at one time, standard ingredients in love potions, and widely used. They still are, apparently, for Yemeni men take them even now to enhance their potency. Even TOBACCO leaves were thought at one time to be aphrodisiac, and in 16th and 17th century Europe, potions for perennial youth were made from it, and in medieval times DEADLY NIGHTSHADE was included, for hallucinations caused by drugs derived from this very poisonous plant could take on a sexual tone. Large doses are liable to result in irresponsible sexual behaviour, hence the aphrodisiac tag.
At least with CUCKOO-PINT the reason is obvious enough. Its method of growth, the spadix in the spathe, stood for copulation. This is the reason for all the male + female names, and for the sexual overtones in a lot of others. The ‘pint’ of Cuckoo-pint is a shortening of pintel, meaning penis; a glance at the plant will show why. Recent name coinage carries on the theme, for Mabey.1998 has recorded Willy Lily, as ribald as any of the older ones. Even SUMMER SAVORY (or JASMINE), was claimed as an aphrodisiac, but that belief rested on the derivation of the generic name, Satureia, which some thought was from ‘satyr’. Leland said that VERVAIN was a plant of Venus. In other words, it was used as an aphrodisiac, or as an ingredient in some kind of love philtre. Lyte recommended WILD SAGE seeds drunk with wine, and so did Culpeper. HOGWEED is another unlikely candidate for inclusion here, but, so it is claimed, it has been shown to have a distinct aphrodisiac effect. Even LOVAGE had this reputation, surely only as a result of misunderstanding the name, for Lovage has nothing to do with love. TOMATOES, too, owed a one-time reputation of being aphrodisiac to etymological confusion. The original Italian name was porno dei mori (apple of the Moors), and this later became porno d’ore (hence Gerard’s Gold-apples). It was introduced to France as an aphrodisiac, and the French mis-spelled its name as pomme d’amour. So the tomato eventually reached England under the name pome amoris — love-apple, which name went back to America with the colonists. VALERIAN also was supposed to be aphrodisiac, and there is a record of Welsh girls hiding a piece of it in their girdles, or inside their bodices, to hold a man’s attention.
PANSIES were once thought to be aphrodisiac. Shakespeare, of course, knew this. Oberon’s instructions to Puck were to put a pansy on the eyes of Titania. And the plant was dedicated to St Valentine; all this accounts for the numerous “love” names, of the Jump-up-and-kiss-me type, including the one given by Shakespeare — Cupid’s Flower. On the priciple of homeopathic magic, that which causes love will also cure it, or the result of it. That was why it was prescribed for venereal disease. Gerard noted the belief, and prescribed “the distilled water of the herbe or floures given to drinke for ten or more daies together… (it) doth wonderfully ease the paines of the French disease, and cureth the same…”. Culpeper too regarded it as “an excellent cure for the French disease, the herb being a gallant Antivenerean”, the latter remark being contrary to the accepted belief of his time. But such a hopeless idea as pansy being aphrodisiac must be reflected in the best-known of the “love” names — Love-in-idleness, for that can only mean Love-in-vain, a name that is actually recorded in Somerset.
Who would ever have thought of POTATOES as aphrodisiacs? But Shakespeare was only echoing popular belief when he had Falstaff say: “Let the sky rain Potatoes… and hail Kissing-comfits, and snow Eringoes”. Almost certainly he was referring to sweet potatoes, but no matter, for the idea lingered after the introduction of our potato, and all because of a fundamental error. Being a tuber, it was mistaken by the Spanish who first came across both the potato (papa) and sweet potato (batata), for a truffle, and the truffle was the trufa, eventually meaning testicle, and so an aphrodisiac. The other Spanish term for the truffle was turma de tierra, even more explicitly ‘earth testicle’. In the same way, the testicle-suggesting tubers of EARLY PURPLE ORCHID ensured that the root would be regarded as aphrodisiac, the old tuber being discarded, and the new one used. It would be dried, ground, and secretly administered as a potion (Anson). Another orchid with the same reputation, among the American Indians, was FROG ORCHID. Similarly, a root with that reputation was that of SEA HOLLY, preserved in sugar, and known as Kissing Comfits, as mentioned above, in Falstaff’s speech (see KISSING COMFITS). Even WILLOW was once credited with being an aphrodisiac — “spring water in which willow seeds have been steeped was strongly recommended in England as an aphrodisiac, but with the caveat that he who drinks it will have no sons, and only barren daughters”. GLOBE ARTICHOKE has to be included. As Andrew Boorde had it, “they doth increase nature, and dothe provoke a man to veneryous actes”.
Among African examples, the Zezuru chewed the roots of MIMOSA THORN (Acacia karroo) as an aphrodisiac, and in Malawi, the leaves of CATCHTHORN (Zizyphus abyssinica) are chewed for the effect.
CORIANDER seed was one of the many plants supposed to be aphrodisiac. It is mentioned as such in the Thousand and one Nights. Albertus Magnus (De virtutabis herbarum) includes it among the ingredients of a love potion. SESAME seed, soaked in sparrow’s eggs, and cooked in milk, also bore this reputation, and so did GINSENG. The name is Chinese, Jin-chen, meaning man-like, a reference to the root, which, like those of mandrake, was taken to be a representation of the human form, and it was this supposed resemblance that resulted in the doctrine of signatures stating that the plant healed all parts of the body. The more closely the root resembled the human body, the more valuable it was considered, and well-formed examples were literally worth their weight in gold as an aphrodisiac. It was the the Dutch who brought the root to Europe, in 1610, and its reputation as an aphrodisiac came with it. The court of Louis XIV in particular seemed to value this reputation. AMBOYNA WOOD (Pterocarpus indicus) once had this sort of reputation, or at least was used as a man-attracting charm, as was PATCHOULI perfume, too. MANDRAKE was held to have aphrodisiac as well as narcotic virtues. Theophrastus, in the 4th century BC, recommended the root, scraped and soaked in vinegar, for the purpose. But the plant was perhaps better known as an aid to conception, and to put an end to barrenness, even independently of sexual intercourse. And see Genesis 30. 14-16, in which it is said that Rachel bargained for the mandrake with her sister Leah (by giving up her husband to her). She sunsequently bore her first-born, Joseph, though she had previously been barren. Mandrake’s associates in British flora, BLACK BRYONY and WHITE BRYONY, have inherited the aphrodisiac beliefs, the former, according to East Anglian farm horsemen, benefiting both man and horse. CARDAMOM has long been famous as an aphrodisiac, and it has been suggested that the practice of blending coffee with cardamom, still current, it seems, in Saudi Arabia, is that the cardamom would eliminate the bad effects of drinking the coffee.
Apparently SAFFRON, like coca, enjoyed in the Aztec court the reputation of being an aphrodisiac. However unlikely that may sound, there are comparable beliefs in the Old World — see Leland. 1891: “Eos. the goddess of the Aurora, was called the one with the saffron garment. Therefore the public women wore a yellow robe”. There is a doubtful looking observation that Rorie made, when he claimed that an infusion of Deutzia gracilis was taken as an aphrodisiac in Scotland.