GARDENING / Say It With Vegetables: Or if onions be the food of love, peel on. Forget roses, says Helen Chappell; romance is rooted deep within the earth

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The Independent Culture
TOMORROW is the one day of the year when people who would not normally lift a watering can are seized by a violent lust for plants. For the past week, florists and garden centres have been fighting off armies of pin-striped and denim-clad males, demanding to know whether roses last longer than carnations or whether a potted hyacinth is best. These are the men who would not be seen dead watching Gardeners' World and who probably think horticulture is as exciting as a thermal vest. But some ancient instinct is telling them the opposite just now. Suddenly a fistful of a plant's sex organs is the only thing that will express their innermost desires.

Gardeners who enjoy their gardens, rather than those who merely toil in them, have always known that plants are sexy. After all, the ancient Greeks chose Priapus, the over-endowed son of Aphrodite, to be the god of gardens and garden produce. He was usually portrayed with his unruly organ garlanded with flowers and fruit. I think it is a great pity that garden statuary has always celebrated classical gods such as Apollo and Diana when a tasteful bronze of Priapus would be so much more appropriate.

My loved one has threatened to tip off the Sun if I ever put this harmless idea into practice in our garden. As I hope to receive his usual red roses and champagne tomorrow, I feel it would be best not to upset him.

His choice of traditional Valentine's Day flowers is not as great a thrill to everyone, however. Florists such as Caroline Bailey of the Constance Spry shop in London have seen it all before. 'Red roses are as far as many men's imaginations seem to go,' she reports, 'because the symbolism of the passionate colour red is so clear.' Having revealed their emotions this far, however, male customers apparently lapse into confusion when it comes to writing a card to send. 'They wander into a corner of the shop in a state of great indecision or ask to go away and think about it.' Here again, they usually end up playing safe. 'Most of the messages we see are fun ones,' says Bailey. More 'squidgies' and 'snugglebottoms' than declarations of fiery loins or bleeding hearts. 'Red roses are a heavy romantic statement in themselves,' points out Angela Henderson of Interflora. 'British men use them because they are terrible at saying how they feel. And the point is, it works.'

In recent years, Ms Henderson insists, women have been trying to get in on this floral seduction act by sending Valentine flowers to men. 'We've noticed this particularly on the west coast of Scotland, where men see themselves as masterful lovers. Women tend to choose colourful, structured flowers for men - delphiniums, irises and gladioli.' Gladioli are apparently a good choice for men because they symbolise strength of character in the ancient language of flowers. A single red rose means simplicity (or poverty) and nasturtiums are just the thing to signify how much you admire your lover's patriotism. One of Angela Henderson's female customers has an even bolder approach. She has a standing order for four dozen roses with a card message of such mind-boggling depravity that her florist has sworn never to reveal it.

If flowers are erotic, then - biologically speaking - fruit must be even more so. According to Jon Meakin of the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Information Bureau, there is plenty of truth in the rumour that our kitchen gardens are bursting with homegrown aphrodisiacs. 'Many fruits contain vitamins A and B, which are needed for the manufacture of the body's sex hormones,' he says. 'Apricots, melons and mangoes are good for this. Bananas and avocados contain tryptophan, which reduces stress and lovers' sexual inhibitions. Raspberries, cherries and oranges contain zinc, which is vital for the production of sperm.' The FFVI has a wealth of information on this steamy subject, which it has been quietly collecting for years. Peaches and figs have a long history of erotic associations, being devoured at Roman orgies and nibbled nervously by Chinese and Japanese brides. Their resemblance to female erogenous zones was taken as a sign of their aphrodisiac potential. This is more than can be said of the pineapple, which Louis XIV believed would give him sexual stamina if eaten regularly. What his many mistresses ate to keep up with him is not recorded.

As for vegetables, just about all of them have been used as aphrodisiacs at some point in history. Medieval doctors prescribed phallus-shaped parsnips and carrots to increase male libido (and possibly help with night vision too) and perked up the women with asparagus. Tomatoes were once thought to be so dangerously stimulating that Puritans banned the 'pomme d'amour' from the dinner-table. Aztecs locked up their virgins when they were harvesting the avocado, a fruit which they named ahuactyl (testicle) for reasons best known to themselves.

The ancient Egyptians ate radishes dipped in honey as a love potion, which sounds like a recipe for digestive and amatory disaster. But then they also believed that lettuce was an aphrodisiac.

One of the most erotic vegetables of all times, however, is neither bright red nor phallus-shaped. 'You might think that something obvious like a carrot was the best aphrodisiac,' says Jon Meakin. 'But really you'd be much better off with an onion. African tribes ate them on their wedding nights and Aristophanes recommended them for male potency. He was right because they are packed with zinc.' They are also extremely smelly, of course. The thought of your lover's spiralling sperm-count may not compensate for the effect of his onion breath.

Those in search of an arousing aroma for a Valentine supper a deux might prefer to look elsewhere. Dr George Dodd of the Institute of Olfactory Research at Warwick University recommends a dish containing truffles. 'Truffles are the classic aphrodisiac,' he claims, 'because they share a key pheromone with humans. That is a smell which sends out a clear sexual signal.' This musky scent apparently mimics that of 'clean human skin' and encourages one to seek out the latter as soon as possible. A vase of jasmine on the table (more pheromones) and some fine red wine or iced champagne (even more human-friendly grape pheromones) should result in an interesting evening.

If truffles are beyond your pocket, Dr Dodd suggests celery, which may or may not turn you on. Personally, I've always hated it. But now I know all the secrets of the fruit and vegetable patch, this winter's seed catalogues have started to look unusually tempting. -