What’s a “nice lady gardener” (her words) doing, writing a book about naughty plants?

Helen Yoest admits she blushed when her publisher first suggested she tackle aphrodisiacs from the garden. “I wasn’t really embarrassed — it’s up my alley — but I was talking about sex with a complete stranger,” said the Raleigh, N.C.-based author, garden stylist and blogger (www.gardeningwithconfidence.com).

Yoest, a “happily married” mother of three, thinks sex is “funny,” so she decided to walk on the wild side of garden writing, exploring the history, lore and prowess of nature’s sexiest bounty. The result is “Plants With Benefits: An Uninhibited Guide to the Aphrodisiac Herbs, Fruits, Flowers & Veggies in Your Garden” (St. Lynn’s Press, $17.95). In it, Yoest shares the juicy attributes of nearly 50 plants, along with growing tips and a recipe for each (accompanied by mouthwatering photos). We chatted with her about “Female Viagra,” the plant that made the ancient Aztecs lock up their virgin daughters, and erotic menu ideas for Valentine’s Day.

Q: How did you research the book?

A: Everything from Google to the Bible and the Qur’an, and documents about what was found in the tombs of the Egyptians. It was not a deep search — the book is playful — but we did try to hunt down and verify whether something was fact or fiction.


Q: Did you do field tests with your mate?

A: My husband never even read the book. He doesn’t even know what I’ve been up to.


Q: How did you choose which plants made the cut?

A: A plant had to have one or more of three qualities that could affect our pleasure centers. Some plants are suggestive because of aroma or shape — just thinking that something is an aphrodisiac can be enough to make it work as one. Some plants warm the body — especially the lower part — by increasing blood flow. Some plants stimulate the production of hormones. And I couldn’t ignore the importance of a fourth quality: a plant’s ability to increase a person’s overall health and vigor.


Q: What’s a plant you left out because you couldn’t verify its aphrodisiacal powers?

A: The potato. It came up on my radar. At one time, it was very rare — only the rich had it. Once the rich have something, it becomes an aphrodisiac. In hindsight, I kind of wish I had included it, for all the history and lore.


Q: Tell us about a finding that surprised you.

A: The avocado. It’s a sexy plant to me. But when we look at it on the shelf, we don’t see it the way the Aztecs saw it — the way it hung in pairs on the tree — they called it the Testicle Tree. It was so powerful a suggestion that they used to lock up their virgin daughters during harvest time.


Q: Why is the avocado a sexy plant to you?

A: When you open it up — it’s very suggestive when split in half. And it’s a healthy plant, rich in vitamins and all the things that lead to good health. Good health leads to good sex.


Q: Tell us about the power of suggestion and sexy plants.

A: A lot of ancient cultures believed that if something looked like a body part, it would help that body part. That’s how bananas got their suggestive reputation.


Q: Do most stimulating plants tend to arouse one sex or the other?

A: A lot are equal opportunity but some are more beneficial to one sex. Almonds are more powerful for women, while cardamom is more powerful for men. And then there’s nutmeg, which has been called the “female Viagra” or Mama’s Little Helper. It’s a warming agent that stirs things up down there.


Q: Are there any plants that are libido killers?

A: Green papaya will take away desire. But once it ripens, it’s an enhancer. So I say, if you’re alone on a desert island, eat green papaya, but if you’re not alone, eat ripe papaya.


Q: You included garlic — that’s an aroma not everyone loves. What’s sexy about garlic?

A: It’s a warming agent, which increases blood flow. It smells intoxicating when cooked, especially if both people are eating it, although it definitely can be a turnoff if only one person is chomping on it.


Q: What’s a plant whose erotic reputation is overrated?

A: The tomato. It’s such a sexy fruit, with such a rich history. It’s kind of sinful looking. They called it the “devil’s fruit” and the “love apple.” But there’s no strong folklore or science to confirm its powers.


Q: What plant is a sleeper sex machine?

A: The cucumber. That’s a little powerhouse. It’s suggestive looking and has every nutrient you need.


Q: What Valentine’s Day menu would you suggest to set the mood for love?

A: I’d start with a cocktail — a pomegranate martini or champagne, which makes everything festive. Then I’d serve celery soup. Casanova ate celery every day to keep up his libido. Then maybe a quinoa salad, something light. You don’t want to be tied down in the kitchen on Valentine’s Day. A side dish of asparagus and morel mushrooms. And chocolate for dessert, of course. Maybe nice hot cocoa, with cayenne pepper, like the Aztecs, to double the aphrodisiac.


Q: Which aphrodisiac plants are easy to grow?

A: Most of them. A lot of annuals, like garlic and onions, can be grown in containers. Definitely arugula! I can grow figs and fennel, and it’s not hard to grow ginger, carrots, common jasmine and lavender. We’ve had cocktail gardens — the next wave should be love gardens.