Widgets Blog - Emma the Gardener

Rhubarb and alliums

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Rhubarb bud

I wanted to go to the allotment at the weekend (Saturday was the first (mostly) dry day in yonks!) but was given the opportunity to be an extra in a fun corporate video, and since that involved getting my face painted I did that instead.

So today I have been to the allotment for the first time in ages. The ground is very wet. My sloping plot isn’t doing too badly, but the grass paths around the site are sodden and make for slippery progress. The rhubarb plants are putting forth giant buds, and one is even unfurling a leaf. It was hard to get a good photo because the afternoon sun is still low, and shines in your eyes the whole time.

I sowed the last of my packet of broad bean ‘Karmazyn’, which had a sow by date of June 2011. I know the seeds are just fine, because I sowed some in a container on the windowsill and they all germinated. I didn’t get to the allotment to plant them, and so instead I used them to prove that sprouting broad beans isn’t the best idea! They rapidly grow too tall, and spindly in the nice warm indoors. You don’t get a good return on your space, peas would be much better. I am slightly concerned that my new sowings will be snaffled by mice before they germinate – I haven’t direct sown them into soil before. But I sowed a few extras, and I have seeds of other varieties I can sow later if necessary. I note that my allotment neighbour has broad beans plants growing nicely already….

I also planted 24 Triteleia ‘Queen Fabiola’ corms that have been in my kit bag since last year. I’m not holding out much hope for them still being viable, but they’re not going to get any more viable if they stay in the bag, and the instructions do say they can be planted any time between January and June. It was Rhizowen’s fault that I bought them – he says they’re edible. Oh, I’ve just noticed the packet says “dormant until you plant”, so there may be hope.

And last, but not least, I planted two different sorts of allium bulbils. I know one set are from the walking onions I used to have in the garden – I think they’re ‘Amish’. The other… well, I’m not entirely sure. They must be from something that was growing in the garden, but to be honest there were some alliums I lost track off and I’m not sure what they are. I have labelled them as ‘mystery bulbils’, which will at least remind me that I don’t know what they are. Once they come up it should be possible to have a stab at identifying the species. I didn’t have that many….

The purple sprouting broccoli plants are still very dinky, and one needed tying into its support again, but they’re alive and growing and they haven’t been eaten by anything – or blown away – so I’m taking that as a plus! We’re clearly not going to be short of rhubarb in a few weeks, and the garlic and onions I planted last year seem to be doing very well indeed.

Posted in Blog on Feb 26, 2014 ·

Tag: allotment

Virtual book tour: Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs

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PR Monkey

I am busy updating the manuscript for Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs, and am making good progress. I am anticipating having it all ready to be published at the beginning of May 2014, and at that point I would like to embark on a virtual book tour.

What’s a virtual book tour?
Publishers with marketing budgets often send their authors off on book tours when their new book is published. It’s a chance to do signings in book stores, give talks or readings and meet some of your audience – who may well then buy a copy of your book.

A virtual book tour is exactly like that, but it doesn’t involve me leaving the house or lugging a crate of books around the country (which would be tricky with an ebook, anyway). Instead of frequenting book shops and church halls, I will popping around blogs and websites and spreading the word about my new book and how wonderful it is.

Which is where you come in. If you have a blog or website, you could host an event for me. On a given day on the tour you could post an interview with me, or host a chat. You could review the book. I can record a reading from the book or write a guest blog for you. If you’re a foodie you could put together a special recipe post, so that people have something to sustain them at the book launch party :)

Of course, you might have a better idea – something that would fit with both the book (which is about unusual edible plants and the people who grow them) and your blog audience.

If you’d like to book a place on my virtual tour, send an email to my PR Monkey with your blog/website address and an idea (if you have one) of the event you’d like to host.

Thank you :)

Posted in Blog on Feb 25, 2014 ·

Tag: books

Forthcoming ebook

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Exotic edibles

When I started writing a book about the wide variety of unusual edible plants, and the people who choose to grow them, back in 2010, I never thought the project would take so long to come to fruition. Two years ago, when I picked up the manuscript with the intention of finally publishing it, I didn’t realise that a serious upheaval was about to ensure it had to be put to one side yet again.

Now I am determined it will see the light of day. I have started going through the finished manuscript, making the final corrections and any updates required after two years in mothballs. I’m finding it really interesting to go back and read it, having largely forgotten what I wrote! I intend to self-publish it as an ebook, and have applied for my own set of ISBNs.

In the UK, the allocation of ISBNs (which are required for books and ebooks if you want them to be widely distributed, but not if you’re going to handle sales yourself) is handled by the Nielsen UK ISBN Agency. You cannot buy a single ISBN, they are sold in blocks – with the smallest block being 10.

If you are applying for your first batch of ISBNs then there is a registration fee; if you need further batches in future this no longer applies. With VAT, the 2014 price to register as a new publisher and receive 10 ISBNs is £132. (Note that ISBNs are not transferable; they will always be assigned to the publisher name you’ve chosen.)

To apply you will need to have a publisher name (you can use your own, or choose a trading name) and to know some details about the first book you’re going to publish. For ebooks it’s relatively simple as some details (e.g. page sizes and the number of pages) aren’t relevant; you just need to have chosen the book title. You also need to supply the title page and verso for the book – essentially just draft statements of the title, author and publisher details. They don’t have to be the final versions, and the application form gives examples you can copy. Oh, and you need to give an estimated publication date. Nielsen will enter all of these details into their book database for you when they process your application.

Once you’ve submitted your form, your ISBNs will be sent out (by email or post) within 10 working days.

My intention at the moment is to publish the book via Smashwords. In theory, if I supply a correctly-formatted Word document they will do the rest and turn it into the main ebook formats. I estimated that I could have all of this done by the beginning of May. I will keep you posted.

In the meantime, you can find more details about the book on the Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs page.

Posted in Blog on Feb 22, 2014 ·

Tag: books

Swapping Seeds

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Seedy Penpal package

This is the parcel of seeds I received from my Seedy Penpal this week – it includes tree spinach (Chenopodium giganteum), Potimarron squash, Courgette de Nice, Hamburg (root) parsley and scorzonera as well as Tithonia flowers and tree paeonies. The Seedy Penpal exchange, organised by Carl Legge, isn’t a straight swap – I sent a parcel of seeds to a different individual last month. If you fancy becoming a Seedy Penpal yourself, then you can register your interest now; the next swap will take place in August.

Swapping seeds on a one-to-one basis, whether the exchange is mediated by the internet or not, is an entirely different experience than attending a seed swap. It’s seed swap season, with local events springing up all over the country, often in tandem with potato days, where you can buy your seed potatoes for the year.

The Seedy Sunday seed swap in Brighton is arguably the most famous (and potentially the largest) in the UK. I’d always wanted to see it, and so this year I made the trip down to Brighton to have a look… and was bitterly disappointed.

To begin with, there was a queue to buy tickets. Now I don’t have any objection to paying an entrance fee for an event like this, but I hadn’t been expecting one – because it wasn’t mentioned in any of the promotional materials that I saw when I was doing my pre-swap homework.

I couldn’t find much guidance, either, on how the swap itself worked – which kinds of seeds were allowed and which were not, and so on. There was a mention that you could swap seeds for a 50p donation per packet, if you didn’t have any seeds to swap yourself. It wasn’t until I was in the swap and standing by the tables that the rules were explained.

Seedy Sunday

Getting to the seed swap tables was an epic adventure – the hall was heaving. There was no room to move, and nowhere to stand, you simply had to go with the flow and hope it took you where you wanted to go. People were rude (as they often are), shoving and barging.

At the seed swap tables, the seeds were organised into small boxes according to plant family. You have to have some method of organisation, as otherwise the seeds go all over the place and you can’t keep an eye on what’s going on. But as soon as you put the seeds in boxes you limit access to one or two people at a time; the larger the boxes, the longer people take to flip through, make their selections, and move on.

People were impatient. There was more barging and shoving. And when I finally did get a chance to browse, there was nothing of interest left in the boxes. Although I am assured that they began the day with a more interesting selection, but lunch time you would have been hard pressed to find anything other than tomatoes and runner beans.

Moving on from the swap itself, there were some interesting stalls – but again it was hard to get close to them. The Thomas Etty seed stall was tiny, and the queue several people deep. Edulis had a larger table on which to display their plants, and I managed to buy a Cha Cha Chive so that I didn’t leave with nothing. But in less than half an hour I had given up and left.

I don’t have all the answers on how to run a better seed swap – I’ve tried it myself, and it’s difficult to handle crowds. At least the Seedy Sunday helpers probably didn’t have to cope with the constant demands for explanations of “how it works” that you get when you run a seed swap as part of a larger event, or hoards of people turning up who weren’t expecting a seed swap and have nothing to exchange.

If you’re the kind of person who likes hunting through bargain bins and doesn’t mind crowds, then Seedy Sunday might be for you – it runs in February every year. If not, then I’d suggest looking for something a little smaller and closer to home – or swapping on a more individual basis with the online gardening community. And if you’re looking for something in particular, then just ask – many people are happy to swap, or to send out surplus seeds for just the cost of the postage.

How do you swap your seeds?

Posted in Blog on Feb 17, 2014 ·

Last modified on Feb 17, 2014

Tags: events & seeds.

Plant Nutter's Book Club: February 2014

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Monkey reading Buffalo Bird Woman's Garden

Have you finished reading Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden? What did you think? Readers have left a few comments on the introductory book post, but now it’s time for a proper discussion.

I’ve heard from several of you that you were thoroughly enjoying reading the book. I didn’t find it that engaging, but I was struck by the amount of work that went in to maintaining a Hidatsa garden (more of a smallholding, really) and processing the resulting harvest. At several points the book makes reference to work being carried out communally, with other members of the tribe coming to help with some aspect, and being ‘paid’ with a share of the harvest and a good meal.

I was also intrigued by the apparent monotony of the Hidatsa diet – it seems to have been based mainly on ‘messes’ of corn and/ or beans and squash. Very little was mentioned about the green vegetables or herbs they may have gathered, rather than grown, to liven things up a bit.

Clearly expert gardeners, the Hidatsa women knew that there were two different types of squash flowers – one that bore fruit, and one that didn’t, but don’t seem to have made the connection to male and female flowers. They made no effort to keep their squash lines breeding ‘true’, but the corn varieties were kept distinct by growing them some distance apart.

And it was fascinating to read that “Young men didn’t smoke much, believing it would damage their lungs and make them poor runners. Tobacco was grown by old men.”

How about you, what did you think of the book? What did you find most striking? Please post your thoughts in the comments. If you’re struggling for something to say, try pondering these questions:

What did you most enjoy about the book?
What did you least enjoy?
Do you feel the book has relevance to gardening today?
Is there something from the book that you can take away, into your own garden?
Did you learn something new about the plants in the book?

The comments will stay open for 6 weeks (it’s an anti-spam thing), so if you’re still finishing the book there’s time for you to join in the discussion later.

And the results of the vote are in – we’re going to be reading The Lost Art of Potato Breeding in March! You can source a copy directly from Rebsie Fairholm’s publishing company, Skylight Press, or via Amazon UK and

We start reading on 1st March 2014 :)

Posted in Blog on Feb 15, 2014 ·

Tag: books

2014: Citizen Science

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Horse chestnut candle

Towards the end of last month, citizen science made the news when the findings of the Conker Tree Science Project were published (e.g. by BBC News). The project used reports from the public to track the spread and establishment of the horse chestnut leaf miner across the UK (pretty much everywhere south of Newcastle). The findings have been published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE, as befits proper science (as The Success of the Horse-Chestnut Leaf-Miner, Cameraria ohridella, in the UK Revealed with Hypothesis-Led Citizen Science).

The growth of social media and the development of internet tools to handle these kinds of projects means that there are now more options for the citizen scientist than ever before, and the properly-published results show that citizen scientists are making a real contribution. So if you’d like to try your hand, here are some of the projects you might like to get involved with:

The Harlequin Ladybird Survey is tracking the spread of another invasive pest, one that has the potential to out-compete our native ladybird species.

OPAL is the Open Air Laboratories Network, which aims to “create and inspire a new generation of nature-lovers by getting people to explore, study, enjoy and protect their local environment”. Their website shows that they have quite a few surveys open at the moment, including tree health, biodiversity and soil and earthworms.

The Zooniverse is a big citizen science site with lots of projects. They started out with Galaxy Zoo, using pictures from the Hubble Telescope to investigate how galaxies form. They’ve added in several more astronomy projects, including looking at solar flares and exploring Mars’ weather, but they’ve expanded into other areas of science as well. You could look through historic ship’s logs, to find information that can be used to develop climate models, or classify NOAA’s more modern data on tropical cyclones. Study the lives of the ancient Greeks, or annotate and tag soldiers’ diaries from the first world war.

For the citizen naturalist, Zooniverse has options to listen to whales communicating, classify the Serengeti animals photographed by camera traps or explore the ocean floor. There are museum samples that need transcribing for historical biodiversity data – including herbarium samples in Notes from Nature.

That’s not the only option if you like looking through old herbarium records – Herbarium@Home could use your help with that as well.

Green-fingered gardeners can take part in Garden Organic’s Members Experiments (although there’s a clue in the name – you do have to be a GO member). There’s usually several to choose from each year. Previous ones that I know about include growing chickpeas, mango ginger and soy beans here in the UK, and finding out which flowers attract beneficial insects into the garden.

There are bound to be more projects that I don’t know about, and I’m sure there are some great local efforts as well – if you’re involved in a citizen science project then do let me know in the comments. Whether you get involved because it’s a cause you want to support, or because you have some spare time to donate, or because you just #lovescience and want to be a part of it, there’s plenty to choose from, and citizen science can be really rewarding!

Posted in Blog on Feb 14, 2014 ·

Tags: science & ethnobotany.

What does it mean to say that an aphrodisiac plant is effective? Part 2 of 2

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This is the second half of an essay I wrote for my Masters degree in ethnobotany. You can find part one here.

Pheonix reclinata

Why do people use herbal aphrodisiacs?

Given that Western medicine does not regard aphrodisiac plants as effective, why do people continue to use them? Kilham states that accounts of the effects of aphrodisiac plants have been passed down through generations, and across cultural borders. With no motivation to pass on misinformation in the long-term, he believes that people are merely passing on information that will help others – i.e. that people pass on information about aphrodisiac plants purely because they have found those plants to be effective.

de Albuquerque puts forward a diversification hypothesis that ‘exotic’ plants are added to traditional pharmacopeia because they contain bioactive secondary metabolites that are missing from local flora – i.e. that these plants are used to treat diseases because they are effective in doing so.

Access to Western medicine is not widespread – the World Health Organisation estimates that 80% of people in developing countries depend on traditional medicines for their primary health care. This can be due to prohibitive cost or a lack of Western medical facilities; there may also be local beliefs that herbal medicines are safer than Western medicines.

Even amongst populations that have access to Western medicines, it is rare for a patient to seek help for erectile dysfunction – Nehra estimates that only 10% seek treatment, and that the reasons for this involve an acceptance that sexual function diminishes with age, but that there are also issues with the complex nature of sexuality, taboos and cultural restrictions.

Aphrodisiacs in a cultural context

It is impossible to deny that there is a strong cultural aspect to aphrodisiac use. For example, those familiar with Western cultures will no doubt have been regaled with anecdotes of sexual conquests and even conception facilitated by the consumption of alcohol. Alcohol could therefore be considered to be an aphrodisiac, although its nature as a sedative means that its main action is probably to reduce inhibitions. Indeed, over-consumption makes it an anaphrodisiac, reducing potency (a well-known fact immortalised in British English by the use of the phrase ‘Brewer’s Droop’).

Research suggests that the belief that alcohol has aphrodisiac effects persists, despite scientific evidence to the contrary, and that this belief is due to the psychosocial effects of learned cognitive expectations and social meanings.

Thus it is possible that the cultural aspects of aphrodisiac use follow a similar pattern to that observed in psychoactive drug use by Becker. Becker’s observation was that drug users have to go through three stages – learning the techniques (preparation, application, etc.), learning to perceive the effects of the drugs and then learning to enjoy those effects. Outside a culture (or subsculture) where the (initially unpleasant) effects of the drugs are considered to be pleasurable, psychoactive drug use is shunned.

Spanish Fly (Cantharides or Cantharidin) is an aphrodisiac produced from dried beetles. It irritates the urogenital tract and causes a rush of blood to the genitals. Although this last effect may be the one hoped for, Spanish Fly is a poison and its side effects include burning of the throat, genitourinary infections and even death. It is hard to see how first-time users would perceive it as effective and pleasurable, and hence continue to use it, without the kind of cultural expectations that Becker describes.

The prescription and application of aphrodisiacs may also be ritualised, as part of a larger medical tradition in which ritual is as important a part of a cure as the plants themselves. Herbal remedies (like pharmaceutical drugs) require culture-specific processing. Their effectiveness may depend on the timing of plant collecting activities, processing and spells and charms. These cultural aspects shape medical practice. For example, there is widespread mention throughout historical records and folklore of aphrodisiacs being used to promote fertility, especially during wedding rituals.

A natural drive

Sexual activity is a normal part of the human experience, and Steels notes that sexual satisfaction is associated with a higher quality of life. As well as providing pleasure, it can bolster self-esteem, foster intimacy and reduce stress. However, there are numerous factors that can affect libido, including psychological issues, physiological problems and medications.

Beyond these effects on the obvious stages of sexual function, there is evidence to show that modern life is affecting fertility, with sperm counts declining over the last fifty years and causing a corresponding rise in male infertility. A problem with an aspect of sexual ability has an array of personal, social and biological consequences. Sexual problems can lead to misery and silent suffering, problematic interpersonal relationships and even divorce.

Even Western medicine is beginning to consider these wider aspects when looking at the treatment of sexual problems – as McKay notes, there is a move towards a more holistic view of male sexual well-being that is reminiscent of the holistic style of treatments more familiar in traditional medical systems.


Aphrodisiacs have been used for millennia, to enhance sexual pleasure and potency or fertility. Over time, substances believed to have aphrodisiac effects have appeared in and disappeared from medical systems as understandings about the body and the nature of disease have changed. (Few people now, for example, would consider taking Radithor – a pharmaceutical aphrodisiac based on Radium and reported to have caused at least one death from radiation poisoning!)

The Western medical system has scientific rules on when aphrodisiac substances (and all other medications) can be claimed to be effective, which rely on empirical evidence gained through an application of the scientific method. However, the modernist paradigm and its promotion of scientism has led to traditional medical systems and their long use of aphrodisiac plants being dismissed or denied.

Sexual satisfaction (and, when culturally appropriate, fertility) are an important part of the human experience and it is therefore understandable that humans throughout history have sought remedies that will help them to respond to their natural urges and bolster their self-esteem in societies that place a high value on potency and fertility.

By looking at aphrodisiacs in their cultural context, I have shown that their use has effects beyond the mere physical and bioactive, and that their continued use in itself is proof of their effectiveness in this wider sense. Aphrodisiacs clearly answer a larger cultural need, and in this sense they are effective; for the Western medical system to disparage them on the basis of a very narrow scientific viewpoint is a relic of the modernist paradigm and its refusal to accept the value of traditional knowledge without it first being ‘validated’ by clinical evidence.

What does it mean to say that an aphrodisiac is effective? It means that, when taken in the right cultural context, a substance produces the expected physical or emotional effect – whether via a recognisable bioactive compound or a more general improvement that allows an individual to achieve sexual satisfaction and the corresponding positive change to their well-being.

Adams, S. (2013) Brewer’s droop’ can hang around for months [Online]. The Telegraph. Available from [Accessed 3rd February 2012].

Becker, H. S. (1953). Becoming a marihuana user. American Journal of Sociology, 59(3): 235-242.

de Albuquerque, U. P. (2006). Re-examining Hypotheses Concerning the Use and Knowledge of Medicinal Plants: A Study in the Caatinga Vegetation of NEBrazil. Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine, 2(30).

Gawin, F.H. (1978). Pharmacological enhancement of the erotic: Implications of an expanded definition of aphrodisiacs. Journal of Sex Research, 14(2): 107-117.

Harvey, S. M., & Beckman, L. J. (1986). Alcohol consumption, female sexual behavior and contraceptive use. Abstract. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 47(04), 327.

Hsu, E., & Harris, S. (2010). Plants, Health and Healing: On the Interface of Ethnobotany and Medical Anthropology (Vol. 6). Berghahn Books.

Kilham, C. (2004). Hot Plants: Nature’s Proven Sex Boosters for Men and Women. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin.

Lang, A. R. (1985). The social psychology of drinking and human sexuality. Abstract. Journal of Drug Issues, 15(2):273:289.

Macklis, R. M., Bellerive, M. R., & Humm, J. L. (1990). The radiotoxicology of radithor. Abstract. JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association, 264(5), 619-621.

McKay, D. (2004). Nutrients and botanicals for erectile dysfunction: examining the evidence. Alternative medicine review: a journal of clinical therapeutic, 9(1): 4-16.

Nehra, A., Kulaksizoglu, H. (2002) Global perspectives and controversies in the epidemiology of male erectile dysfunction. Abstract. Current Opinion in Urology, 12(6):493-496.

Nordenberg, T. (1996). US FDA, Looking for a Libido Lift? The Facts About Aphrodisiacs [Online]. Available from [Accessed 29th January 2013].

Olayemi, F. O. (2012). review on some causes of male infertility. African Journal of Biotechnology, 9(20).

Pandey, M. R. (2006). Use of medicinal plants in traditional Tibetan therapy system in upper Mustang, Nepal. Our Nature, 4(1): 69-82.

Postman, J. (2009). Cydonia oblonga: The Unappreciated Quince. Arnoldia, 67(1), 2-9.

Rodrigues, E., & Carlini, E. A. (2005). Ritual use of plants with possible action on the central nervous system by the Krahô Indians, Brazil. Phytotherapy Research, 19(2), 129-135.

Steels, E., Rao, A., & Vitetta, L. (2011). Physiological Aspects of Male Libido Enhanced by Standardized Trigonella foenum‐graecum Extract and Mineral Formulation. Phytotherapy Research, 25(9), 1294-1300.

Tharakan, B., & Manyam, B. V. (2005). Botanical therapies in sexual dysfunction. Phytotherapy research, 19(6): 457-463.

van Andel, T., Mitchell, S., Volpato, G., et al (2012). In search of the perfect Aphrodisiac: Parallel use of bitter Tonics in West Africa and the Caribbean. Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 143(3): 840-850.

Waldstein, A. (2006). Mexican migrant ethnopharmacology: pharmacopoeia, classification of medicines and explanations of efficacy. Journal of ethnopharmacology, 108(2), 299-310.

Wani, J. A., Achur, R. N., & Nema, R. K. (2011). Phytochemical screening and aphrodisiac activity of Asparagus racemosus. International Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences and Drug Research, 3(2): 112-115.

Posted in Blog on Feb 13, 2014 ·

Last modified on Feb 7, 2014

Tags: ethnobotany & aphrodisiac.

What does it mean to say that an aphrodisiac plant is effective? Part 1 of 2

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About this time last year, when I was doing my Masters, I decided that it might be fun to look into an aspect of aphrodisiac plants – this essay is the result. Part 2 is coming along tomorrow :)



Turner notes that “practically everything remotely edible has at some point or another been credited with sexually-enhancing powers – and many inedible substances besides”. This speaks to a strong (and perhaps unfulfilled) human need to find the ‘perfect’ aphrodisiac, although the position of Western conventional medicine has long been that there is no scientific proof that effective aphrodisiacs exist.

As aphrodisiacs have been used by humans for thousands of years (Harper, for example, surveys recipes for aphrodisiacs found in medical manuscripts buried in a tomb dated to 168 BE), and continue to be sought out, this essay aims to explore what it means to say that an aphrodisiac is effective (or, by implication, ineffective).

I will start by defining what is meant by an aphrodisiac. Then, beginning by exploring the Western medical view of what makes any medical treatment effective, and moving on to place aphrodisiac use in a cultural context, this essay will argue that a purely biological/ physiological definition of efficacy is not enough to explain how and why aphrodisiacs are used, and whether they can be said to be effective.

What is an aphrodisiac?

The word ‘aphrodisiac’ is derived from the name of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. As Gawin notes, literary references focus on the idea that they enhance sexual pleasure, whereas aphrodisiacs have tended to be described scientifically as substances that enhance libido (sexual drive).

Sandroni goes so far as to say that aphrodisiacs can be put into categories according to their mode of action – increasing libido, sexual pleasure or potency (defined here as the ability to achieve or maintain an erection).

In other medical traditions, the concept of an aphrodisiac is defined even more widely. Bianchi refers to the use of maca in the Andean highlands to counteract the limiting effects of altitude on both human sexuality and reproductive capacity. Kaphle et al point to the ongoing quest of Chinese men to increase both sexual satisfaction and ‘virility’ – a word they do not define, but which to my mind combines aspects of both potency and fertility.

Aphrodisiacs in Western medicine

In Western medicine, drugs are understood to intervene chemically with specific biological mechanisms, and this interaction is what accounts for their clinical benefits – their ‘effectiveness’. A drug is therefore defined as effective when its biological effect, and the body’s physiological response, can be proven experimentally. For a plant (or its derivative) to be included in the Western pharmacopeia, both its clinical efficacy and biological activity need to be experimentally demonstrated.

However, much of the scientific research into medicinal plants over the last 150 years has concentrated on determining the chemicals present, rather than demonstrating their biological activity.

Another issue for aphrodisiacs is that there is no one accepted method that can be used to identify plants with the ability to enhance male potency, with scientists running tests on excised rodent organs, or observing rodent behaviour after dosing animals with an extract. These animal models are limited to assessing the basic mechanical or instinctive sexual functions. Clinical human trials allow for the more cerebral aspects of sexual behaviour to be examined, but most rely at least partly on subjective self-evaluation by the test subjects.

This lack of empirical evidence (possibly combined with morality and a narrow outlook) is behind the Western medical belief that no effective aphrodisiac plants exist.

The placebo effect

The idea that aphrodisiac actions are merely an example of the placebo effect is revealing, as the placebo effect itself is a scientifically-demonstrable fact that Western medical science struggles to explain. Researchers have found that placebos (treatments involving no active drug ingredients) can provoke real physiological responses, including changes to blood pressure and heart rate and chemical activity in the brain.

Despite acceptance that the placebo effect is real, Western medical tradition evaluates potential drugs by looking for a level of change above and beyond the placebo effect – without trying to explain the placebo effect or seeing it as a treatment in its own right and trying to enhance its effects.

Reporting on the work of Kaptchuk, Feinberg explains his hypothesis that the placebo effect occurs because patients are responding to engagement with their doctor, or the act of being given care itself. In a small study that has yet to be replicated Kaptchuk showed that the placebo effect may be ‘dose-dependent’ – the more care patients receive, the better they feel.

Neuroscientists have shown, with the benefit of medical imaging, that therapeutic rituals cause molecules to move within the brain – the same molecules activated by the bioactive compounds in pharmaceutical drugs. Whilst this research is it its infancy, it appears to be validating the holistic approach to health seen in more traditional medical systems.

Modernism and ethnocentrism

The paradigm of modernism has had a profound effect on the way that indigenous knowledge has been perceived, with its conceptual cornerstone of scientism promoting the idea that the only valid world view is a scientific one. A crude ethnocentrism in the modernist discourse denies the value, and even the existence, of indigenous knowledge. When not ignored, the value of traditional knowledge is presented as contingent on its scientific validation.

Historically, many aphrodisiacs have been associated with the Doctrine of Signatures (DOS) – a medical tradition found throughout the world. The DOS identifies the medicinal use of plants by morphological characteristics, an idea frequently dismissed as ‘primitive’. This rationale has been used to dismiss aphrodisiacs used in the DOS tradition.

However, Bennett hypothesises that this is a modern misinterpretation of the use of the DOS, and suggests that its primary function was as a mnemonic aid to knowledge transmission – allowing the dissemination of information about plants previously identified as effective through experimentation.

Anecdotal evidence of the efficacy of aphrodisiacs is therefore dismissed by Western medicine as an example of the placebo effect, the effect of a general improvement in health caused by the correction of a nutrient deficiency, physiological effects unrelated to libido or merely a change in mood or loss of inhibitions.

Ethnopharmacology and post-modernism

The move towards a post-modern paradigm has seen a shift towards cultural relativism, and the idea that all cultures (and the indigenous knowledge they contain) are meaningful and worthy of respect. A utilitarian approach to ethnoscience highlights the practical value of indigenous environmental knowledge in conservation and the development of new commodities, and this post-modern paradigm has led to a more widespread acceptance that many Western drugs were derived from plants.

Ethnopharmacology aims to discover novel, potentially medicinal, compounds from among the plants and animals used in traditional medical systems and discovered by lay people and folk healers based on their own theories of the human body and of disease.

An ethnopharmacological approach to selecting plants to test for biologically-active compounds is a relatively successful one. However, their acceptance into the Western pharmacopeia is still contingent on their efficacy being demonstrated in clinical trials, which are taking place for some species – e.g. fenugreek (Trigonella foenum‐graecum), maca (Lepidium meyenii), yohimbe (Pausinystalia yohimbe) and Chinese chives (Allium tuberosum).

Alexiades, M. N. (The cultural and economic globalisation of traditional environmental knowledge systems) in Heckler, S. (2009). Landscape, process, and power: re-evaluating traditional environmental knowledge. Oxford: Berghan Books.

Bennett, B. C. (2007). Doctrine of signatures: an explanation of medicinal plant discovery or dissemination of knowledge? Economic Botany, 61(3): 246-255.

Bianchi, A. (2003). MACA LEPIDIUM MEYENII. Boletín Latinoamericano y del Caribe de Plantas Medicinales y Aromáticas, 2(3): 30-36.

Cicero, A.F.G, Bandieri, E. and Arletti, R. (2001.) Lepidium meyenii Walp. improves sexual behaviour in male rats independently from its action on spontaneous locomotor activity. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 75(203): 225-229.

Feinberg, C. (2013). The Placebo Phenomenon [Online]. Harvard Magazine. Available from [Accessed 3rd February 2013].

Gawin, F.H. (1978). Pharmacological enhancement of the erotic: Implications of an expanded definition of aphrodisiacs. Journal of Sex Research, 14(2): 107-117.

Guohua, H., Yanhua, L., Rengang, M., Dongzhi, W., Zhengzhi, M., & Hua, Z. (2009). Aphrodisiac properties of Allium tuberosum seeds extract. Journal of ethnopharmacology, 122(3), 579-582.

Harper, D. (2005). Ancient and Medieval Chinese Recipes for Aphrodisiacs and Philters. Asian Medicine, 1(1): 91-100.

Houghton, P. J. (1999). The scientific basis for the reputed activity of valerian. Journal of Pharmacy and Pharmacology, 51(5): 505-512.

Howes, M. J. R., & Houghton, P. J. (2003). Plants used in Chinese and Indian traditional medicine for improvement of memory and cognitive function. Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior, 75(3), 513-527.

Kaphle, K., Wu, L. S., Yang, N. Y. J., & Lin, J. H. (2006). Herbal Medicine Research in Taiwan. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 3(1): 149-155.

McKay, D. (2004). Nutrients and botanicals for erectile dysfunction: examining the evidence. Alternative medicine review: a journal of clinical therapeutic, 9(1): 4-16.

Nordenberg, T. (1996). US FDA, Looking for a Libido Lift? The Facts About Aphrodisiacs [Online]. Available from [Accessed 29th January 2013].

Perry, E. K., Pickering, A. T., Wang, W. W., Houghton, P. J. and Perry, N. S. L. (1999). Medicinal Plants and Alzheimer’s Disease: from Ethnobotany to Phytotherapy. Journal of Pharmacy and Pharmacology, 51(5): 527–534.

Sandroni, P. (2001). Aphrodisiacs past and present: a historical review. Clinical Autonomic Research, 11(5), 303-307.

Steels, E., Rao, A., & Vitetta, L. (2011). Physiological Aspects of Male Libido Enhanced by Standardized Trigonella foenum‐graecum Extract and Mineral Formulation. Phytotherapy Research, 25(9), 1294-1300.

Turner, J. (2005). Spice: The history of a temptation. London: Harper Perennial.

Waldstein, A. (2006). Mexican migrant ethnopharmacology: pharmacopoeia, classification of medicines and explanations of efficacy. Journal of ethnopharmacology, 108(2), 299-310.

Posted in Blog on Feb 12, 2014 ·

Tags: ethnobotany & aphrodisiac.

Access to Research

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When you’re a university student, you have access to all kinds of academic research, provided via your institution’s library. They pay for access to any of the journals that are deemed relevant for students and academic staff. Once you leave, you are brutally cut off, left high and dry above the flood of knowledge, both modern and historical.

Open access to online papers is increasing, and I’m not going to dwell on the politics/ business model of academic publishing, but suffice to say that – as an individual – access to most journals is a costly business. You can buy/rent one-off access to papers, but a subscription is probably more than most people can afford. And since interesting research is spread (whatever your field) over innumerable journals, it would be impossible to fund a research habit yourself. (For plant nerds, an annual subscription to Economic Botany is actually affordable, and comes with online access to their archive, which makes it a very good deal.) Quite often you can’t read more than the abstract without paying – which may not be enough to tell you that the paper will be useful to you.

There are numerous ways around this problem, which are laid out in a nice blog post – 5 Ways To Get Your Hands On Academic Papers Without Losing Your Mind (And Money). It talks about asking for papers on Twitter, Microsoft Academic Search, Google Scholar, Cite Seer X and emaiiing the author (most academics are only to happy to send copies to you if you are genuinely interested in their research).

I added a sixth to the list, which I was told about but have yet to try – asking on Reddit Scholar. You may also find that the author(s) have a list of publications somewhere on the internet, some of which may well have links to downloadable copies. However, some of the journals dislike copies being given away for free, and ask institutions to remove them.

But, as of last week, you can now get access to research journals via your local public library, thanks to the Access to Research initiative. I emailed the Oxfordshire Library Service to ask how it works, and got the following response:

Due to the publishers’ licensing conditions the website can only be accessed through library PCs. We do have special computers in our libraries called Information PCs which don’t require booking and have no time limit on their use so these would be the best way of accessing the site.

We are hoping to get a direct link to Access to Research placed on our website and on the PCs themselves but in the meantime you can open an Internet Explorer page on a library PC and use to access the site.

Articles may not be saved to memory sticks or other storage devices but can be printed off at a cost of 20p per page.

If you have any further questions about Access to Research please let us know, we’re very excited about this resource being available in libraries!

So, there you have it. If you’re interested in accessing scientific or research papers then pop along to your local library! It’s worth checking what other services they offer, as well, as your library card may give you access to some online resources that you can access from anywhere (I have just discovered that mine gets me back issues of National Geographic and the archives of The Times until 2007).

How do you feed your research habit?

Posted in Blog on Feb 10, 2014 ·

Tag: science

Review: Maille mustard

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In Didcot there’s an independent butcher, which is rumoured to be very good – Calnan Brothers. We’d intended to pop in and see for ourselves for some time, but never quite got around to it. But a week ago we received some extra motivation, in the form of a parcel of goodies to review from Maille. With mustards to taste, we headed straight out to the butcher in search of meats to grill, and came back with the largest beefburgers and Oxford sausages you’ve ever seen. And the burgers didn’t shrink on the grill – we were hard pressed to finish them!

So, armed with quality meat products, we went about testing the mustards. There were two – mustard with white wine and cognac and mustard with white wine, hazelnut and black chanterelle mushrooms.

So, how did they fare as condiments? Well, we each preferred one of the two. Whilst Ryan really liked the mustard with white wine and cognac, I found it very sour. I liked the mustard with white wine, hazelnut and black chanterelle mushrooms, even though the occasional crunchy chunk of hazelnut is a little unexpected! The next step is to try using them in recipes, and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall had a lovely looking recipe for rabbit in creamy mustard sauce in the Guardian last week that we might try. Maille have their own collection of mustard recipes on their website as well.


The final item in the package was one of their vinegars – red wine vinegar with Dijon blackcurrant liqueur. As you can see, it’s a gorgeous colour. Maille suggest that it works well with gourmet salads, game, veal liver, chicken liver, but I don’t have much experience of using vinegar in food. Do you have any suggestions?

I was provided with free products to review from Maille, via FuelMyBlog. My words are, as ever, my own.

Posted in Blog on Feb 8, 2014 ·

Tags: reviews & spices.

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