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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Science of Flowers and Candy

Air Date: Week of

Just in time for St. Valentine's Day, Steve Curwood interviews German ethnobotanist Christian Rätsch about his new book called: Plants of Love: The History of Aphrodisiacs and a Guide to their Identification and Use. Dr. Rätsch's volume details the historical and often successful search for substances that can enhance sexual pleasure and provoke both love and fertility.


CURWOOD: You may think that flowers and candy, the traditional gifts of Valentine's Day, are just tokens of love. But there's some biology behind them. Vanilla, for example, is considered to be an aphrodisiac, and a remedy for impotence. The aroma of Clary flowers, which comes from a type of sage plant, is said to kindle erotic desire. I learned all this from a new book by German ethnobotanist Christian Rätch. It's called Plants of Love: The History of Aphrodisiacs and a Guide to Their Identification and Use. Dr. Rätsch's volume details the historical and often successful search for substances that can cure impotence, enhance sexual pleasure, and provoke both love and fertility. Alcohol is the most universal aphrodisiac, he says, and there are many more from the thorn apple to chili peppers. Some are regulated substances, and others, like hemp and cocaine, are illegal in many places. But Dr. Ratsch says one of the most potent aphrodisiacs is legal. It hails from West Africa and it's called Yohimbè.

RATSCH: Yohimbè is the name of a tree or maybe of several different species of trees in western Africa. And the bark of this tree has been used for millennia to enhance potency for ritual purposes, for sexual rituals, and also for enhancing pleasure. And in the 19th century, it was discovered by German travelers and they found the use in Africa and tried it on themselves, and they found it astonishing what effect they got from it. And so it became quite famous.

CURWOOD: Have you tried this yohimbè?

RATSCH: Of course. Many times.

CURWOOD: Well how was it?

RATSCH: Well, I found it very, very interesting. First, I experimented with the bark, which was like a little stimulation only. But then I tried the pure compound in different dosages on myself. It was like what in Eastern philosophy is called the Kundalini power. It's like a sexual arousal from the bottom of your body, and that goes like electricity up your spinal cord until it reaches your brain. And it's all vibrating stimulation, which is, like, amazing, and very pleasurable.

CURWOOD: Mm. Now, some of the plants you talk about in your book here, though, you'd get into trouble. I mean, I see hemp, that's marijuana, that's good for jail. Cocaine, or the coco shrub, that's good for jail. Have you tried these yourself?

RATSCH: Well, I don't know how National Public Radio (laughs) will react to what I say, but as a scientist I believe that I have to try the stuff I study to really understand what they do. And if cocaine or hemp is a way to jail in the United States, that doesn't mean it's as bad as that in other places of this planet.

CURWOOD: Now, in your book you say that aphrodisiacs help prevent divorce. Is this true? And how exactly?

RATSCH: I got this as a quote from old Sanskrit literature of India. They say aphrodisiacs are not for young men. They are horny enough. Aphrodisiacs are for married couples because they need this as a kind of medicine to stay together. Because when people live as a couple for a long time, they might get a little tired or disgusted by the other or not getting more excitement or so. And to keep this excitement, to keep the relationship fresh, they advise to take aphrodisiacs. And I think that's wonderful. And I do exactly the same thing with my wife. I mean, we are together for almost 18 years, and we tried lots and lots of aphrodisiacs together. And it was like a good enrichment to our life, and we are still happy lovers.

CURWOOD: (Laughs) Okay. Now, if you could tell me, using ingredients that would be relatively easy for someone in this country to find and legal in this country, can you give us a simple recipe for Valentine's Day?

RATSCH: Well, of course, I mean, we haven't been talking about a shrub called Damiana, that is a totally legal herb you can get everywhere. And it is called a Plant of Love, and it comes from Mexico, and it also grows in California. And you can make teas out of it, you can use it as an incense or as a tobacco substitute. You can put it into liquor and make an extraction. And it gives a very subtle sensation, but it makes your body warm and pushes blood in your upper parts and just gives you a more pleasant feeling. And that is no problem at all.

CURWOOD: Dr. Christian Rätsch is author of The Plants of Love: The History of Aphrodisiacs and a Guide To Their Identification and Use. Must have been hard to get this book published.

RATSCH: Well, in Germany it was very easy. But in the United States it took about 7 years that a publisher was willing to do a translation. Because the writing is quite open and -- well, of course, I go for sex and plants.

CURWOOD: Thank you so much.

RATSCH: You're welcome.

CURWOOD: Bye bye.

RATSCH: Bye bye.



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