The Strangest Aphrodisiacs Throughout History

In the age of Tinder, Bumble, and online Zoom dates, it seems almost old-fashioned to talk about wining, dining, and holding hands over a plate of oysters with chocolate to come for dessert. Yet romance — and especially bedroom romps — have long been associated with other kinds of physical experience, especially aphrodisiacs. 

An aphrodisiac is any substance thought to get you in the mood and ready to roll into bed. As Merriam Webster puts it, it's "an agent (such as a food or drug) that arouses or is held to arouse sexual desire." While these are often just completely innocent foods that have gotten a rather, ah, interesting reputation, there's also a long tradition of using super-strange ingredients in lotions, potions, and other concoctions to start gettin' revved. Over the millennia, frisky humans have used just about anything they can get their hands on to heighten sexual experience, induce lust, or address various sexual malfunctions. From food to potentially deadly toxins, if it gives you a tingle, it's fair game as an aphrodisiac.

Just about any funny-shaped vegetable has been considered a sexual aid

For thousands of years, humans looking to enhance sexy funtimes have turned to just about any fruit or vegetable shaped in a way that would make a kindergartener giggle. Is it long, a little flexible, and maybe has a knob on the end? It must get you or your partner randy! As Wired points out, this idea was upheld by the doctrine of signatures or "like cures like," which was espoused by cultures around the world, including early Western physicians like Paracelsus. Basically, if something looks similar to something else, it can help fix what's wrong with you.

So with that in mind, it's not a — ahem — stretch to see why asparagus, because it is long and has a tip and grows pretty quickly, could supposedly fix erectile dysfunction or ensure good performance. History Kitchen on PBS notes that French nobles supposedly gorged on the stuff before their wedding night as a form of bedroom insurance. That's got nothing on the Kama Sutra, which suggested a paste of asparagus and milk to solve bedroom woes, according to National Geographic. And Renaissance herbals recommended taking asparagus wine on an empty stomach to "stirreth up lust."

With such a long tradition of "phallic food equals fun times," it's no surprise the eggplant emoji is what it is today — even though eggplant was considered to cause insanity of the non-romantic variety for most of its history, as Saveur notes.

Whale puke may help you get laid

Whale puke, better known in cultured circles as ambergris, has been considered an aphrodisiac for at least 1,000 years, as the British National History Museum points out. Once this weird, waxy substance dries out, it smells pleasantly of musk and has been used as a key perfume ingredient — as well as a mood elevator, if you get the drift. And it turns out, according to a paper in Archives Internationales de Pharmacodynamie et de Therapie, that one of the key components may actually act as Viagra in rats...though human data is lacking.

The longtime allure of ambergris might be because of that intoxicating scent, or perhaps because of the mystery of the substance itself. Scientists still aren't sure how or why certain sperm whales make ambergris, or even if it comes out the front or back. But its rarity and expense made it a great way to show off, and wealth can be attractive — so between the lovely scent and the value, ambergris has been considered an aphrodisiac by many of the rich and powerful. Smithsonian Magazine notes that Casanova used to mix some with his chocolate cream to give him extra stamina for his exploits, while Fragrantica recounts that England's King Charles II used to eat ambergris with eggs for a particularly potent breakfast.

The world's smelliest fruit could rev you up

Durian is notorious as being both the "king of fruits" and for being illegal in public places in Singapore because it's so dang smelly, as the BBC reports. If you can get past the "gym sock meets rotten cheese" odor, it's creamy and mildly sweet — a tasty treat! And one that, according to a Malay proverb, could get you laid – "When durians fall down, the sarongs fly up."

But if that durian has been pooped out by an elephant, it's even more valuable, with samples going for more than $300, as Mongabay reports.That's because it's considered to concentrate the lust-inducing powers of the creamy fruit. The association is so strong that in 2017, the Malaysian government was considering commissioning a study on the aphrodisiac power of durian as part of an export campaign, according to the Straits Times.

England's Kew Gardens notes that while elephants do eat durian, they don't disperse the seeds well, so elephant durian definitely meets the "rarity" criteria of a good aphrodisiac, but the combination of "super-smelly" and "already been partially digested by something else" seems an unlikely candidate for inciting romance. Still, as Year of the Durian points out, something seems to be going on, as small studies in rats have shown an increase in, ah, male vigor after eating the smelly snack.

Lizard wine might help in the bedroom

The ancient Greeks and Romans believed that a particular lizard drowned in a man's urine could spice things up in the bedroom. Specifically, the author Pliny the Elder, writing in his Natural History, listed out a number of possible aphrodisiacs, but one that kept coming up was bits and pieces of skink, a type of lizard. Preparations ranged from drowning the critter in urine to steeping its skin in wine with arugula for added potency.

As Vivienne Lo and Eleanor Re'em note in "Recipes for Love in the Ancient World," many ancient aphrodisiacs relied on wine as a carrier — alcohol was a great solvent, and if the intended aphrodisiac chemical didn't do the trick, getting your partner good and drunk just might. Still, there might be something to that skink wine, as skinks have been used for bedroom bliss from Egyptian times onwards. As Travel + Leisure points out, they're sometimes even used in parts of Africa today, though it's more likely that skink urine would be harvested over Pliny's preferred molars.

Toad sweat could turn you on — or kill you

The excretions of the Bufo cane toad have been used for millennia in both Indian and Chinese traditional medicine to address impotence and lack of desire, as toxicologist Megan Cartwright reports in Slate. But swallowing the "love stone" instead of rubbing it on your personal bits as recommended, according to UF Health Podcasts, could kill you almost instantly, as too many folks have discovered over the years.

Accounts from Slate and the Associated Press note a number of cane-toad-elixir-related deaths from the early 90s through 2011 in New York City, where guys in search of a good time bought "love stones" from street vendors. There's some evidence to back up cane toad venom as an intoxicant — it can cause hallucinations and a feeling of euphoria — but it also causes life-threatening cardiac arrhythmia and usually death by heart attack, as an article in the medical journal Heart notes. Cane toad toxins can also cause priapism — an hours-long, often painful sustained erection — which likely led to its historical popularity as a bedroom aid, despite the constant risk of keeling over dead, especially after, ah, vigorous exertion puts an additional strain on the heart.

Seriously, dudes, don't go licking toads before a date. Just relax, and let nature take its course.  

Sea cucumber could help your cucumber out

Sea cucumbers, the odd giant caterpillar-looking beasties from the sea floor, are often dried and stirred into soups in Chinese cuisine, as the Spruce Eats relates. But they also command high prices for their supposed ability to help the male member, ah, more closely resemble the size and girth of the original critter. They're safe to consume, but high demand as a gourmand status symbol and erectile aid has endangered a number of species, according to National Geographic.

While part of the allure of this squishy critter might be that doctrine of signatures mentioned earlier — it looks like a girthy male member if you squint hard enough — there also seems to be some scientific evidence backing its historical use as an aphrodisiac. Verywell Health points out that small studies have found some anti-inflammatory and cardiovascular benefits, which may promote general well-being or vigor in the bedroom.

Still, at up to $3,500 per kilo, as Business Insider reports, that's one heck of an expensive date night. Food Navigator suggests that farmed sea cucumbers may one day open up new culinary and sexual worlds for the adventurous among us, but in the meantime, maybe protecting ocean diversity should win out over protecting bedroom reputations via squishy sea critter stew.

Rhino horn absolutely won't get you horny

Don't buy aphrodisiacs made from endangered species. Especially when their supposed "traditional" use is a Western misconception to begin with, as Scientific American points out. There's little evidence that rhino horn was or is actually prescribed as an aphrodisiac in Chinese medicine — but that hasn't stopped poachers from killing these amazing creatures to sell their horns as sexual aids or status symbols or for other human uses. Save the Rhino sadly notes that the horn's use in other traditional remedies has caused the death of tens of thousands of rhinos around the world, driving some species to the brink of extinction.

Worse, the completely incorrect Western media narrative that rhino horn will somehow get you horny (doctrine of signatures again, anyone?) has caught on in places like Vietnam, where the horn had traditionally been used for everything from alleviating a hangover to attempting to cure cancer. As The Atlantic notes, this belief that rhino horn could cure cancer while helping you satisfy your lover has boosted a thriving international poaching trade, with horns going for up to $300,000. PBS highlights that none of these effects are scientifically proven, so rhinos are dying over a misinformation campaign.

Please, folks, just take the Viagra.

Slime eels could help you score

When even your nicknames are pretty icky, you know you're one of the world's ugliest fish. But the hagfish, also known as the slime eel, is pretty popular in South Korea as an aphrodisiac. Perhaps that's because this long, strong, slippery critter resembles the kind of member you might want in the bedroom — and its slippery outer coating could remind folks of, well, you know.

Though as ThoughtCo relates, hagfish slime may have immense commercial potential, it's the edible portion of the fish that most interests Korean connoisseurs. Gastro Obscura reports that the slime is often used as an egg white substitute. But when grilled in sesame oil and taken with a shot, hagfish becomes a popular date night treat before a Netflix and chill session. At $20-plus per pound, the market is lucrative enough to get American fishermen in on the action, as highlights. Of course, there's little scientific evidence of any actual firming effect from eating grilled slime eel, but that's never been enough to stop eager guys from seeing if something that enlarges and kicks off a bunch of slime when stroked might just do the same for them.

Spanish fly could kill you

One of the most famous aphrodisiacs of all time is Spanish fly, a real substance with almost mythical name recognition. Made from the toxic excretions of a kind of blister beetle, it's actually a powerful poison, as Healthline reports. A deadly dose is 30 milligrams or less, according to Poisonous Nature – and, oh, it can cause immediate blindness on eye contact. How sexy!

Rubbed on, the cantharidin excreted by blister beetles for protection from predators causes the beetles' namesake blisters — but also swelling in the localized area, if you catch the drift. And as io9 relates, if a man takes Spanish fly, it'll irritate the urethra on the way out — causing more swelling. Of course, that swelling could result in a painful hours-long erection that you can't really enjoy because you're too busy having extreme abdominal pain, convulsions, and kidney failure, as Wired highlights.

Sadly, the historical fame of Spanish fly as a sexual stimulant has caused numerous overdose deaths — both among men (on whom the chemical kinda-sorta works) and women (who just get the painful side effects with no sexual thrill), as noted by the American Journal of Emergency Medicine. There have even been cases like that of Arthur Ford, who was convicted of manslaughter in the 50s for accidentally killing an officemate while attempting to assault her colleague with candy laced with Spanish Fly, as The Guardian reports.

Seriously, don't give people hideous poisons to try to get them frisky.

Cobra blood may keep you long and strong

Yet again, the idea that something long, strong, and flexible may help keep guys that way in the bedroom rears its head — in this case, a hooded, venomous head. Since around 1000 B.C.E., according to Gastro Obscura, Asian medicine has used snake wine to treat ailments from baldness to arthritis. But the most popular use is a particular preparation of cobras in rice wine, said to help with male stamina.

Peter H.C. Lim, writing in the Journal of Translational Andrology and Urology, notes that both cobra meat and blood are considered remedies for erectile dysfunction in many Asian medical traditions. Snake wine is one of the more socially acceptable ways to get a little boost in the bedroom, especially since it's sold cheaply at markets throughout China and Southeast Asia.

But beware — not only might you be supporting poachers and helping kill off a threatened species by gulping cobra wine, as the South China Morning Post cautions, you might be risking your life, too. That's because if the snake isn't killed before being marinated in the rice wine, it could just go into a dormant phase and then leap out of the bottle to bite you. Yes, that has actually happened, as the BBC reports.

Again, please...just try some chocolate?

Do any aphrodisiacs actually work?

According to BBC Future, whether a given aphrodisiac works is mostly a case of mind over matter, with an added wrinkle of cultural expectations. Just about anything can get your blood pumping — if you're already disposed to be in the mood. A study published in Pharmacognasy Review found that a few herbal preparations can help with very particular sexual issues, but for the most part, again, it's psychological.

PBS provides a helpful list of edible aphrodisiacs that have some scientific backup for their fabled potency. For the most part, as HealthGuide points out, it all comes down to either mild irritation, a jolt of energy from caffeine or B vitamins, or providing low levels of feel-good chemicals like tryptophan. Naturally, rubbing something on your private bits will get the party started, so topical aphrodisiacs tend to have something behind them. And given that many aphrodisiacs involve steeping ingredients in alcohol, they may really lower inhibitions and make it a little easier to get down.

However, as the Mayo Clinic points out, although there's increasing evidence that traditional remedies like maca have legitimate medical benefits, if you're experiencing a lack of desire or trouble in the bedroom, it's best to consult your doctor. If you're wooing someone and want to get them in the mood, maybe go with tried-and-true chocolate or a nice card. And if the object of your affection doesn't return your feelings, well, how about getting some therapy and moving on.