My Funny Valentine: The Herbs and Spices of Romance

It’s nearly Valentine’s Day, and of course our thoughts turn to thoughts of love.

Before the advent of self-help books and movies about plucky heroines who take matters into their own hands, the lovelorn, the lovestruck, and the well-loved turned to folk wisdom, passed down through generations, to catch and keep romance.

A big part of that folklore centered on what I’ll call “kitchen magic” – cooking up love with the help of herbs from the garden, and spices from the cupboard.

The romantic cook understood the symbolism associated with different spices and herbs. For example, rosemary symbolized remembrance, and bay leaves represented fidelity, while cardamom and cinnamon were said to inspire “passionately wild abandon.” [Who knew that cooking could be so fraught with romance and danger?]

At any rate, here’s a look at herbs and spices that were traditionally considered helpful, where romance is concerned:

Cinnamon: cinnamon sticks were burned, like incense, to speed things up in a love affair. It was also used in love sachets and sprinkled under the sheets of the bed.

Dill: add a half-handful of dill seeds to your bath water to attract the opposite sex to you. People also sprinkled dill around the home to protect and strengthen an existing love.

Lavender flowers were burned in a pretty-smelling fire to attract the opposite sex. Alternately, in the olden days before daily [or even weekly] bathing, people scented their clothing with a lavender flower sachet.  Lavender symbolized devotion and undying love.

Basil leaves were burnt and used in many love spells and love potions. It was considered really potent love-getting stuff.

Bay leaves represented “the glory of love” and were used in a bath to attract a soul mate. The lovelorn could also carry them around in a pocket, while searching for their soul mate.

Caraway seeds were said to enhance lust, if one was feeling not-so-amorous. It could also stop your partner from committing infidelity if you slipped it in their pocket.

Cardamom is known as a “compelling” [or coercive] herb. Sprinkled on food or tucked in a sachet under the bed, it was said to arouse a lover.

Coriander, carried on the person, sprinkled under the sheets or used in food recipes was thought to deepen and strengthen an existing love relationship. Coriander seeds were also reputed to bring about reconciliation, fidelity, and a happier marriage. [Of special interest to long-married folks].

Fennel: in love spells, the seeds, leaves and roots of fennel were used for many kinds of love alchemy, including love rituals “to awaken love.”  In some cultures fennel symbolized flattery.

Ginger, an exotic spice “from the Orient,” was sometimes used to arouse a reluctant lover or cure impotency.

Lovage is an ancient medicinal herb; the roots and seeds of lovage were said to be used for erotic love alchemy.

Oregano signified joy and happiness. People would include oregano in recipes where one wanted to send this “love message” to your beloved.

Rosemary was used in recipes to bind two people together “in a gentle love.”

Cleopatra was known to use Saffron as an aphrodisiac. Saffron, vanilla and nutmeg are all thought to have aphrodisiac qualities [and the citations often caution that these potent potions and expensive exotic ingredients should be “used in moderation.”]

Spearmint: The legend says that the goddess Persephone found out that Pluto was in love with the beautiful nymph Menthe and jealously changed Menthe into a lowly plant. Pluto softened the spell so that when Menthe would be crushed, she would release a refreshing smell.   Spearmint enhances love, healing and wisdom.

Thyme symbolizes affection.

Yarrow means everlasting love.

And, of course, hot chile peppers have often been used as a metaphor or symbol of  passion, spice, heat, warmth, vitality. Paprika has a similar reputation for sparking a flame of attraction.

So, does this “kitchen magic” really work, where love is concerned?  Well, if you’re trying to conjure up a perfect relationship solely from the contents of your pantry…. sadly, probably not.

But in a more practical sense, by focusing that intent [“I love this person for whom I’m creating something“] on whatever you’re cooking or crafting, you imbue what you’re making with a kind of magic — even if the magic is just imaginary magic in your head.  Does that make sense?

The traditional use of herbs and spices to capture and hold affection are fun historical curiosities. The supposedly “magical” effects of the herbs or spices adds an element of fun to cooking up something special for the people you care about.

A pretty smart guy from the olden days, Paul, said that love is able to ‘conquer all’.  Put in that context, if you really think about it, love is the greatest source of “magical power.”

Photo credits: Waverly Place, George Eastman House Collection, and [lower]Young Couple Seated In Garden, Powerhouse Collection