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Q

Is There a Viagra Plant?

I hear that there's a common garden plant that has the same effects as Viagra. What is it, and is it safe to grow and use?
A
Answer (Published 10/15/2007)

The story of the "Viagra" plant comes from England and was an April fool’s hoax published by the newspaper, The Independent. The story, which got lots of Internet mileage, goes like this: a 55-year-old furniture restorer who liked to make teas from different plants got an unexpected effect when he brewed up an infusion with blooms from winter-flowering heather. In its April 1, 2007 report The Independent quoted the fellow as saying that the effect was so immediate – and obvious – that he "had to stay in my potting shed for an hour or so before I could decently walk down the street."

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Of course, the discovery of an easy-to-grow, safe and natural form of Viagra would be major news and would generate huge headaches for drug manufacturers. The credible-sounding Independent story explained that the man who brewed the tea contacted the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh to ask what could have caused the unexpected reaction. A real botanist was quoted in the article as saying that hybrids of winter-flowering heather contain an analog of Viagra and that the most potent sources are forms of Erica carnea, an Alpine heather that grows in Britain and much of Europe. A convincing dialog, but it’s not true.

The story went on, tongue-in-cheek, to describe a craze for winter-flowering heather throughout Britain and quoted a clerk in a garden center as saying that "men old enough to know better" have been fighting over limited supplies.

The article even gave a recipe: steep about 20 grams of the small flowers (less than an ounce) from the heather in 100 milliliters (about a half cup) of neat alcohol such as 80-proof vodka. But then there was a line that should have tipped off gullible readers (if the April 1st date didn’t): the botanist added that confusion exists as to whether to drink the stuff or apply it locally.

The moral of the story is that the British take April Fools’ Day seriously, so be skeptical of far-fetched news from the UK on April 1st.

Andrew Weil, M.D.

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