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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

The Biology of Love

Air Date: Week of February 14, 2003

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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: We often give flowers and plants as tokens of love, and there's some biology behind our motives. Vanilla beans, for example, are considered an aphrodisiac. Likewise, the aroma of clary flowers from a type of sage plant is said to kindle erotic desire.

I learned all this a few years ago when I interviewed German ethnobotanist Christian Rätsch. He's the author of a book called “Plants of Love: The History of Aphrodisiacs and a Guide to their Identification and Use.” In the spirit of Valentine's Day, we're re-airing our interview in which Dr. Rätsch told me that while alcohol is the most universal aphrodisiac, thorn apples and chili peppers are said to do the trick too. Some aphrodisiacs are regulated substances and others, like hemp and cocaine, are illegal in many places. But Dr. Rätsch says one of the most potent erotic herbs is legal. It hails from West Africa and it's called yohimbè.

RATSCH: Well, yohimbè is the name of the tree, or of maybe several different species of trees in Western Africa. And the bark of this tree has been used for millenia 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 the--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: Now, some of the plants you talk about in your book here, though, you’ll get into trouble. I mean, I see hemp, that's marijuana, that's good for jail. Cocaine, or the coca shrub, that's good for jail. Have you tried these yourself?

RATSCH: Well I don't know how National Public Radio 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 get any more excitement. 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, we haven't been talking about a shrub called damiana. That is a totally legal herb you can get everywhere and it is called the “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.” It 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 seven years that a publisher was willing to do a translation. Because the writing is quite open and it's--well, of course, I go for sex and plants.

CURWOOD: Thank you so much.

RATSCH: You're welcome.

CURWOOD: Bye bye.

RATSCH: Bye bye.

[MUSIC: Kiss “Calling Dr. Love” The Very Best of Kiss - Universal (2002)]



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