If you want to get lucky on Valentine’s Day, you could do worse than mix up a love potion. Humans have been concocting such tonics since time immemorial, and we still roam the earth, fruitfully multiplying. We must be doing something right.
Problem is, though there’s a long and colorful array of ancient aphrodisiacs, not all of them are easy to come by—or appetizing. Rhinoceros horn, goat testicles boiled in milk, the white bark of the Arjuna tree, Spanish fly, skink flesh: These are not delicacies to be procured from your local grocer. And they would probably have your date urgently excusing him- or herself.
Lucky for you, history offers some delicious options, too. Over the centuries, cultures across the globe have heralded more or less all of our edible riches as aphrodisiacs. Often, the science was pretty thin; if a food resembled any aspect of the sex organs, it was held up as an agent of passion. For instance, the potato, arguably the least sexy vegetable on record, once whipped Europe into a lustful froth, but only because it looked like a testicle, and it was a new import from the Americas to boot. (By all means, though, if spuds put you in the mood, far be it for us to stand in your way.)
That said, one must be adventurous. Here are 11 tasty, time-honored, and wholly reasonable ingredients to boost your virility or fertility.
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Artichokes: In the 16th century, European women were forbidden from eating artichokes, so vehemently were they believed to spur lust. Greek myth suggests their very creation is wrapped up in concupiscence: when Zeus was visiting his bro Poseidon, he spied a lovely lass, Cynara, whom he scooped up and took to Olympus for godly trysts whenever his wife was away. But when Cynara grew homesick and tried to escape to the world of mortals, Zeus, incensed, transformed her into an artichoke. But hey, her loss is your gain.
Pine Nuts: The Roman poet Ovid, in his Ars Amatoria—that’s “the Art of Love,” if your Latin isn’t quite serviceable—recommends consuming “seeds from the cones of sharp-needled pines” to whet one’s appetite for seduction. If you trust in tradition, pine nuts have a long and reliable lineage—Ovid wrote that line in the year 2.
Truffles: When Louis XV found himself flagging in the bedroom, Madame de Pompadour fed him truffles to restore his virility. And she was no stranger to their effects herself; according to Memoirs of Louis XV, “She ate truffles and celery soup: finding her in a very heated state, I one day remonstrated with her about her diet, to which she paid no attention.”
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Arugula: In ancient Rome and Greece, arugula was believed to be such a potent aphrodisiac that precautionary measures had to be taken. Ever wonder how lettuce came to be the basic ingredient of salads? It was to prevent excessive libido at the table. In Food in the Ancient World from A to Z, the historian Andrew Dalby writes that “at ordinary meals lettuce was customarily served with rocket, which was believed to neutralize it.” Of course, on Valentine’s Day, neutralization is exactly what you don’t desire. Prepare a salad with plenty of arugula and hold the watercress.
Saffron: Cleopatra added a 1/4 cup of saffron to her baths—some say it was for purely cosmetic reasons, but others claim it turned her on, made her more desirable to men, and increased her sexual pleasure. Science, in its infinite wisdom, concurs with the ancient queen: Crocin, a carotenoid chemical and antioxidant found in saffron threads, has been shown to increase erections in rats. So why not you, too?
Olives: Conventional wisdom says that green olives make men more virile and black olives make women more fertile. The Greeks used it, purportedly, to soften up their unwilling wives: a woman who refused her husband’s advances was to be massaged with olive oil for seven consecutive nights. On the eighth, she would acquiesce—out of desire, one hopes, and not to relieve the tedium.
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Anise: Anise seeds have earned an endorsement from no less an authority than Pliny the Elder, who declared, in Natural History, that they should be sucked upon to increase desire. He was sure to add that they’re great in wedding cakes. But why stop there? “Anise, chewed and applied warm, or else taken with castoreum in oxymel, allays suffocations of the uterus,” says the good doctor.
Carrots: Given their phallic shape, carrots are an obvious contender for virility aid. Ancient Afghani royalty were rumored to use them in seduction efforts, though one wonders exactly how this worked. “Hey, babe, how about a bite of my carrot?” seems a shade too obvious to work as a pickup line. Then again, those were simpler times, and the snap of a fresh carrot is always hard to decline.
Guarana: In the seventeenth century, Father João Felipe Bettendorf, a missionary in Brazil’s Amazon basin, found that the Sateré-Maué tribe was using a plant called guarana as a stimulant and a virility aid. Its seeds contain about twice as much caffeine as coffee beans; they would chew it or make tea from it. As the Sateré-Maué myth has it, guarana was introduced when a god killed a beloved village child, and another god, apparently hoping to console the villagers, plucked the child’s left eye and planted it in the forest, from whence sprang guarana. Wasn’t that a kind gesture? Today, you can find guarana in a number of energy drinks, including Rockstar and Monster—no child eyeball burial required.
Nutmeg: The Chinese were among several ancient cultures to discover that nutmeg puts women in the mood. Today, it’s known as “Viagra for women” in parts of Africa; a 2010 article claims, baldly, “In the morning of a wedding or other important day, women put nutmeg in their porridge. It makes them loose.”
Avocado: No list of aphrodisiacs is complete without the avocado, whose name derives from āhuacatl, a Nahuatl word that also means “testicle.” (Accordingly, the Aztecs supposedly called the avocado plant a “testicle tree.”) A 1911 book, Myths and Legends of Flowers, Trees, Fruits, and Plants in All Ages and in All Climes, relays a Guyanese legend that points to the plant’s inextricable sexiness: a sleazy, scheming tapir once stole a man’s beloved, and he “traced them through the wilderness by the avocado trees that had sprung from the seed scattered by his faithless wife.”
See more from Bon Appetit:
10 Valentine’s Day Recipes for Creating “Lady and the Tramp” Moments
Foods That Make You Better at Sex
How to Order Wine On a First Date