Aphrodisiacs of yore

I’m skipping out for the rest of the week to attend the nuptials of two beautiful friends in the tropics, so I thought I’d leave you with some erotic plant trivia.

As I’ve noted, there aren’t any known natural aphrodisiacs (with the possible exception of yohimbe bark); foods that tend to be associated with sexual arousal or increased performance either have mild physiological effects (like the tingly burn of peppers or increased blood flow from high-zinc oysters) or suggestive appearances such as asparagus and figs. For some foods, like oysters, the belief of aphrodisiac properties goes way back. But many other foods that were once thought to boost libido or fertility have quite lost that meaning over time.

Lettuce was considered a “cooling” food in Ancient Rome; it was thought to have minor healing properties, but among them was a capacity to chill out victims of pent-up sexual energy or sexy dreams. But in Ancient Egypt, lettuce was associated with the fertility god Min. This ancient Egyptian lettuce was a quite different plant than the round frilly heads we favor these days: Min’s lettuce was taller, spikier, and secreted a milky sap. Hmm.

Sweet potatoes were brought to the British Isles from the Caribbean isles, and at least one doctor wrote of the fleshly pleasures of this tuber: a Dr. Muffet thought they increased both libido and flatulence. Awesome! Now Falstaff’s cry to “let the sky rain potatoes” has an additional layer of humor. Perhaps it’s not too strange to think of sweet potatoes as aphrodisiacs: like tomatoes (“love apples”) and chocolate, they were exported to early modern Europe from the mysterious and exotic lands of South America. Quite possibly these plants were understood to be stimulating because of their association with cultures with different (and, to the European mind, more permissive) sexual rules.

Yes, I included chocolate in that group of unduly exoticized foods. Chocolate’s aphrodisiac reputation stems in part from the understanding that the Aztecs–particularly their leader Montezuma–drank chocolate for sexual strength. But this may have been a misunderstanding; I came across an article (“Aphrodisiac Use in Pre-Columbian Aztec and Inca Cultures” by Jan G. R. Elferink) which notes that the Aztecs had numerous and variously named beverages made with cacao, and only one of these was considered aphrodisiac, so it is is unlikely that cacao itself was broadly considered to be aphrodisiac in Mesoamerican cultures–though chocolate was certainly considered to be a high status drink.

Aphrodisiac assumptions about carrots seem like low-hanging fruit–pardon the term. Carrots can’t help the way they are shaped! But whether or not the association was primarily invited by visual allusion, there are ancient Greek medical treatises which report several varieties of carrot as having both aphrodisiac and flatulent effects. Like the sweet potatoes–although I wouldn’t be surprised if these ancient Greek texts gave Dr. Muffet the idea in the first place. How odd this seems to us now, though.

For more, you might enjoy this New York Times interview with Helen Yoest, author of Plants with Benefits. The author draws from recent research studies as well as history and folklore, and in the interview she describes some of her more surprising findings–such as that the scent of licorice is arousing to men, generally. (Fennel, you finally have a purpose!) Those of you who have known me long enough to know that the scent of lavender makes me involuntarily giggle will be amused to learn that this (extremely unsexy!) scent has been observed to increase blood flow to the nether regions.

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3 responses to “Aphrodisiacs of yore

  1. Pingback: White-washing rice and other telling tales | Scenes of Eating·

  2. Pingback: Elsewhere on the Internet: Sweets for the Sweet | Scenes of Eating·

  3. Pingback: Elsewhere on the Internet: Food Evolutions | Scenes of Eating·

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