Foods to create a mood: ‘Plants with benefits’

Guacamole, celery sticks, almonds and licorice, topped off with a cup of cocoa. That may not sound like ingredients for a romantic Valentine’s Day menu. But if you want to set the mood for love, those foods all offer something a little extra to help nature take its course.

Whether by suggestion or chemistry, these foods have enough aphrodisiac qualities to spur romance.

Author Helen Yoest calls them “plants with benefits.” That’s also the theme of her fun and provocative gardening/cookbook, “ Plants With Benefits: An Uninhibited Guide to the Aphrodisiac Herbs, Flowers and Veggies in Your Garden” ($17.95, 146 pages), just released by St. Lynn’s Press.

Yoest, 57, is a longtime garden writer who stumbled onto a universal topic: sex. Her work has appeared in Better Homes & Gardens, Martha Stewart Living and many other magazines. Author of a previous gardening book, she serves as the national gardening expert for

Originally, she planned to write a garden book about plants that stimulated the senses by smell, taste or touch. Instead, she found a collection of edibles that were just plain stimulating.

“I didn’t plan to write a botanical Kama Sutra,” she said during a phone interview from her Raleigh, N.C., home. “I was researching avocados, and I stumbled on all these wonderful facts.”

Such as the Aztec name for the fruit – ahuacatl – means “testicle,” probably because avocados often grow in pairs on the tree. Avocados became a symbol of fertility. According to anthropologists, Aztec families locked up their virgin daughters during avocado harvest.

But avocado’s appeal wasn’t all coincidental to how it hangs on the tree. Avocados are rich in folate (vitamin B-9), which stimulates semen production. They also contain zinc, potassium, fatty acids and other vitamins that boost health and potentially performance.

Yoest knew she was hooked.

“The book is meant to be a fun thing,” Yoest said. “I’m this mild-mannered gardener that stumbled into this. ... I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. It’s a hot topic.”

Her book definitely has stimulated interest.

“Don’t bother with the oysters and puffer fish,” wrote Southern Living’s Steve Bender. “According to my friend Helen Yoest, you can turbocharge your love life with some garlic, ginger, asparagus, pine nuts and bananas.”

“ ‘Plants With Benefits’ is a must-have catalog of plants that will satisfy all your libidinous botanical curiosities,” wrote Country Garden’s James Baggett. “Good luck not getting emotionally invested.”

“Plants With Benefits” may be the first book about selecting edible garden plants for their sex appeal. Yoest backed up her 45 choices with scientific research as well as folklore.

“History is full of lore about the lengths people went to for aphrodisiacs and the concoctions they came up with,” she said. “Once you get it in your head that something works, you’re halfway there.”

The biggest surprise for Yoest? “Almonds,” she said. “Just the smell of almonds can be effective on women. That almond paste smell just does it for me. (As an aphrodisiac), it revealed itself to be true.”

Almonds also contain amino acids, which increase arousal.

To qualify as a potential aphrodisiac, each food plant had to have at least one of four qualities, Yoest explained.

• The largest category: Suggestive shape or appearance. Asparagus, cucumbers, carrots and figs fit into this group. So do seed-packed pomegranates and papayas.

“Bananas are the classic example,” Yoest said. “People become very sophomoric about it.”

• Other foods contain enzymes or flavonoids that trigger chemical reactions in the brain and get blood flowing down to you know where.

“Cayenne pepper, for example, actually increases blood flow,” Yoest said.

So do licorice and lavender; just the scent of either one can drive men crazy, Yoest said.

A study conducted by Chicago’s Smell and Taste Research Foundation found lavender aroma could increase men’s blood flow by 40 percent. (By comparison, the scent of pizza only stimulated blood flow by 5 percent.)

“Lavender is like organic Viagra,” she noted. “Instead of a little blue pill, spray some lavender around.”

Likewise, the scent of roses stimulates chemicals in the brain that transmit pleasure. Both edible flowers, lavender and roses are used as fragrant flavorings as well as powerful perfumes.

Another strong-scented stimulant: Nutmeg. A whiff can make women feel flirtatious. A pinch of this spice can raise body heat.

But too much nutmeg is not a good thing; in large doses, it’s a hallucinogenic and can be deadly.

• Some plants actually mimic human hormones or stimulate our own hormone production, inciting our libidos. Coriander, the seed of cilantro, can do that; cilantro leaves may be stimulating, too. (“How much coriander you need to eat, no one knows yet,” she noted.)

Chocolate really does work on women, Yoest added.

“There actually have been some studies that verified the power of chocolate,” Yoest said. “Even women with low libido had an increased sense of sexual fulfillment just by eating chocolate.”

• Fruit and vegetables packed with antioxidants promote health.

“And just like the (Viagra) ads say, you have to be healthy enough to have sex,” Yoest said with a chuckle. “These foods help promote a healthier sex life, too.”

Often, these edible plants offer multiple aphrodisiac qualities, she added. Avocados are a case in point. So are pomegranates, an antioxidant-rich “super food” with a long history of stimulating passions.

Straight and strong, celery contains phthalide, which can dilate blood vessels and improve circulation, plus other compounds that act as a sexual attractant. Yoest notes celery was famous Italian lover Cassanova’s secret weapon; he munched it regularly to stimulate his own libido.

Basil, arugula, tomatoes, garlic, ginger, pine nuts, vanilla – all can produce tangible effects.

Not on Yoest’s list are two red fruits that have a sensual reputation but no data to back it up. Eve may have offered Adam an apple, but she would have been better off with a quince. And strawberries have a lovely heart shape, but that’s as far as they go in tempting amour.

“I found nothing in that regard on apples or strawberries,” Yoest said of potential aphrodisiac properties. “Plenty of plants could be added (to the list) due to their healthy qualities, but I stuck to plants with a history.”

Among the most powerful aphrodisiacs is a familiar one: Wine. In addition to wine’s hard-working flavonoids, alcohol lowers inhibitions.

“Champagne in particular puts everybody in the mood,” Yoest said. “The combination of champagne and chocolate? We’re there.”


Hot cocoa, Vianne style

Makes 2 mugs

“Hot cocoa on a cold winter’s day is a welcome treat,” said author Helen Yoest. “For me, it often conjures up the childhood memories of wearing wet mittens, wrapped around the warm mug, as I wait to take the first sip. But this isn’t your mamma’s hot chocolate. There is a kick to it, worthy of a more grown-up taste.”


16 ounces whole milk 

2 tablespoons double chocolate cocoa 

6 tablespoons Dutch processed cocoa powder 

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg


In a small saucepan, heat the milk to just before it boils. Add the double chocolate cocoa, Dutch processed cocoa powder, and spices. Mix until blended. 

Serve in beautiful mugs and garnish with a dollop of whipped cream. For even more of a kick to the taste buds, try substituting a chili pepper for the cayenne! 


Warm quinoa salad

Serves 6

From the kitchen of Carolyn Binder,


3 cups cooked quinoa

1 head of fresh broccoli, cut into small florets and stems

1 onion, sliced thin

3 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced thin

2/3 cup pine nuts

Salt and pepper to taste

1/4 cup olive oil

1 pound langoustines, precooked and thawed, if frozen (or substitute shrimp)

A squeeze of fresh lemon juice

1/2 cup feta cheese, crumbled


Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Prepare the quinoa according to package directions. At the same time, on a roasting pan, toss the broccoli with the onion, garlic, pine nuts, and olive oil, making sure that everything is coated with the oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Roast in the oven for 15-20 minutes, tossing occasionally, until the broccoli is starting to crisp on its edges and the pine nuts are golden.

Turn the warm quinoa onto a serving platter and top with the broccoli mixture.

Top with the langoustines, a squeeze of fresh lemon juice, feta cheese, and a drizzle of the olive oil.


Basil pesto

Makes about 1 cup

From the kitchen of Carolyn Binder,


2 cups fresh basil leaves (packed)

1/3 cup pine nuts

3 medium-size garlic cloves, minced

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan-Reggiano

Salt and pepper, to taste


In a food processor, combine basil with pine nuts. Pulse a few times. Add garlic and pulse some more.

While hand stirring, slowly add the extra virgin olive oil. Add the grated cheese and pulse one more time. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Serve at room temperature. It makes a sensual dipping sauce for breads or baguette slices, or you can pour it over pasta for a light entree.


Ginger shortbread

Makes 8 slices/wedges

From the kitchen of Steve Asbell.


1/4 cup crystallized (candied) ginger, finely chopped

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

3 tablespoons granulated sugar

1 tablespoon ground cardamom

1/2 cup (1 stick) cold butter

1 tablespoon cinnamon


Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Combine chopped ginger with flour, sugar and cardamom in a bowl. (If you don’t have crystallized ginger, substitute 1 tablespoon fresh grated ginger mixed with 1 tablespoon sugar.) Stir ginger, flour, sugar and cardamom together.

Add the stick of cold butter and, using a blender, mix in until the dough is fine and crumbly. Then knead the mixture together until it makes a smooth ball.

Place the ball of dough on an ungreased cookie sheet and shape it into a 7-inch circle. Cut the dough into eight even wedges.

Bake for 25 minutes or until the edges start to brown. Slice the wedges again, garnish with cinnamon and allow the shortbread to cool before serving.