The term aphrodisiac is tossed around a great during the loving month of February. Valentine’s Day is the real culprit here. For some herbalists, the month of hearts and flowers means fiddling around with plant chemistry. We at the Practical Herbalist were curious. Can herbs really alter human libido?

Most herbs sold as aphrodisiacs fall into a few categories: plants that calm the nervous system (ie. Kava Kava), plants with provocative scents or flavors (ie. vanilla) and plants shaped like human genitals (ie. ginseng roots). Since human sexuality is an extremely complex mixture of hormones, cultural conditioning and psychological triggers, it’s difficult to point to one chemical that will stimulate a sexual response.

Plants that are soothing to the nervous system may help a stressed out partner focus his energies less on the demands of the day and more on the mood of the moment. It might be a good, old fashioned foot massage could achieve the same effect. It’s possible that nervines such as passionflower can calm the nerves enough to make a space for love, but the science behind this unpromising.

Plants with provocative scents or flavors are stirring to human libido for a variety of reasons. Some bring pleasure because they smell or taste like delicious food. Herbs like cinnamon are flavorful but there’s no proof they it make human beings hungry for anything other than baked goods. Some herbs, like rose, can invoke a sense of sexual ambiance because their scent reminds the recipient of traditional romance as our culture has historically defined it.