Jorik SwierThe locals called it 'potency wood' or 'fat dick tree'
Men in Africa and the Caribbean take bitter-tasting draughts to improve their libido; a botanist from Leiden examined the ingredients, and why they are used.
Tinde van Andel has spread out her collection of tropical aphrodisiacs on a table in the Van Steenis building: bottles from various countries in Africa that once contained fruit juice or vodka, now filled with chips of wood and bottles from islands in the Caribbean containing dried leaves, seeds, roots and more pieces of wood. One Jamaican bottle, its label boasting "Pump it up wid Big Man roots tonic wine islands" holds a brown liquid without any visible vegetable traces.
"If you are researching how people use plants, this is the first thing you will run into. My male students are swamped with aphrodisiacs, whether they are interested or not", says Van Andel. She works at the National Herbarium, currently a division of the Naturalis Biodiversity Center. Originally, she trained as a plant biologist, but as she investigates what people do with plants, her work involves many aspects of cultural-anthropology.
"Perhaps one per cent of the men who take these potions drink them because they actually have erectile problems," she postulates. The rest of them take them because they allegedly "purify the blood", because it is virile to be able to take these bitter draughts, and because everyone does, and has done for generations. "On Trinidad, the men drink 'mauby', which is so bitter it makes you gag, but migrants from Trinidad get homesick if they can't get it."
The Caribbean potions probably have their roots in similar brews imbibed in West Africa. African slaves, transported across the Atlantic, had to improvise, and because many African plants do not grow in the Caribbean, they were forced to look for new ingredients, often aided by the local Amerindian people.
Van Andel and an international team of scientists are to publish a paper in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology soon, in which they discuss these "men drinks". 35 African and 117 Caribbean concoctions from sixteen different countries were analysed in the wood collection at Naturalis to see which plants they actually contained. And they contained quite a few – in total, the scientists discovered 324 different species, of which 180 only occured once. However, the richest mixtures contained up to 27 different types of plants; some of them actually work – at least, in the lab they increased sperm production or produced erections.
In many countries, ingredients of animal origin are also added. To emphasise the sexual nature, they might contain armadillo tails, cock spurs, pieces of octopus or the genitals of tortoises or coati. To make things worse, the alcohol content can be as high as sixty per cent.
Like its cuisine, the Caribbean aphrodisiacs are influenced by a mixture of African, European and local culture. The Haitians add Artemisia to their "tifey", following the French tradition of absinth, while Jamaican cordials incorporate imported European herbs.
The French Caribbean draughts include bois bandé. "Moreover, the locals called it 'potency wood' or 'fat dick tree'."
The name does not really have much to do with the tree it designates; in the Caribbean, as many as ten trees are called bois bandé, though they are not related. "Every island has its own kind, and taxonomically, they are not related to each other at all."
However, this year, on a field trip to Gabon, she discovered that a local Mostuea variety is called sete mbwandé in Bakéle. Bois bandé is probably not a strangely chosen name, but a corruption of the African name for the ingredient it was supposed to replace.
Now, centuries after the slave trade, Van Andel has noticed the same phenomenon: people are moving to a new continent – Europe – and have to make do with whatever is available. Ghanaian potions sold in districts of London where many immigrants live contain roots from Jamaica. And she herself was once mystified by strange petals in a bottle from a shop in Amsterdam's Bijlmer district. "But Ms Van Andel, surely you recognise all the plants?" asked the Suriname shop assistant. The petals were ordinary Dutch marigolds.