COMMON NAMES: Ajkits, Damiana, Hierba de la Pastora (Spanish, ‘plant of the shepherdess’), Hierba del Venado (Spanish, ‘plant of the deer’), Misibkok (Mayan, ‘asthma sweeper’), Old Woman’s Broom, Oreganillo (‘little oregano’), Oreja de Venado (Spanish, ‘ear of the deer’), Pastorcita (Spanish, ‘little shepherdess’)
The Turnera diffusa plant is a small shrub with aromatic leaves found throughout Mexico, Central and South America and the West Indies. While the entire plant will grow to an average height of about 30 cm, the leaves tend to grow no longer than 2 cm. The small yellow flowers, only about 12 mm in length, bloom during the late-summer months (July-September) (Ratsch 1998, 520).
Damiana has a long history of medicinal use across the Americas. The plant itself may be grown from seed or cutting, and requires a warm or hot climate, but has no specific soil type requirements, and even grows well in the desert. It has also been found recently in Asia and various islands in the Indian Ocean (Ratsch 1998, 519).
Damiana is available from pharmacies and herbalists without restriction. U.S. health food stores will often carry tinctures and extracts of the plant on their shelves, as will many sex shops. Turnera diffusa seeds may be easily purchased online or in certain home and garden stores.
TRADITIONAL USES: For more than 100 years, Damiana has been associated with improving sexual function in both males and females. Damiana acts as an anti-depressant, tonic, diuretic, treatment for coughs, and mild laxative. It is said to relieve headaches, control bed-wetting, and stimulate muscular contractions of the intestinal tract. Damiana is a stimulating nerve tonic used for debility, depression, and lethargy, and is held in high repute by Mexican herbalists, particularly as an aphrodisiac, prescribed as a thick decoction before bedtime (Ratsch 1998, 521).
The elusive notion of a “love potion” has existed for centuries – that secret mixture of exotic ingredients that will cause the object of affection to fall madly into love, thereby making the potion giver’s dreams come true. The word “aphrodisiac” even comes from the name of the ancient Greek goddess of sensuality, Aphrodite. Technically speaking, an aphrodisiac is any agent that can be used to increase sexual desire. Due to the relativity and vagueness of this effect (“love” or even “desire”), there is always a risk that the power of suggestion (or “placebo effect”) can influence a substance’s perceived effects.
The first official record of damiana as an aphrodisiac comes from the Spanish missionary Jesus Maria de Slavatierra, in his Chronica of 1699. After witnessing the plant’s use in northern Mexico, he bestowed T. diffusa with its current name either as a reference to Damian, the patron saint of pharmacists, or Peter Damiani, a man who was famous for fighting the immorality he saw among the clergy of the eleventh century (Martínez 1994 cited in Ratsch 1998, 519).
An Austrian by the name of Josef August Schultes is credited as the first to write a formal botanical description of the plant early in the nineteenth century. Almost fifty years later, in 1874, the plant was first introduced to U.S. markets as an aphrodisiac. In the years immediately predating prohibition, Dr. John S. Pemberton, known as the inventor of Coca-Cola, even concocted a formula he called French Wine Coca,” containing extracts of coca, cola, sweet wine, and damiana. By 1880 the plant had made its way across the Atlantic, where, as in Mexico and the U.S., it maintains a steady popularity as a “legal alternative” to marijuana and tobacco (Ratsch 1998, 519).
The relatively unassuming appearance of the damiana plant seems to run counter to popular “myths” concerning aphrodisiacs, many of which gain a reputation due to the principles of “sympathetic magic”. For example, one reason for the legend of the rhinoceros horn as a powerful aphrodisiac may surely be attributed to the phallic-looking shape, and association with so powerful a beast. Or the tiger penis, likely regarded as an aphrodisiac almost purely due to the virility and aggressiveness of the animal source. By comparison, Damianas longevity as a well-regarded aphrodisiac seems to eschew such base association and survive solely on its confirmed psychoactive components and record of performance in use.
TRADITIONAL PREPARATION: Damiana makes a fragrant, sparkling tea with a delicious aroma and an agreeable bitter taste. The Aztecs drank a mixture consisting of 32 grams of fresh leaves boiled for 15 minutes in approximately 1 liter of water. Often, a pipe of damiana would be smoked along with the tea to increase the desired effect. The dried damiana herbage may also be prepared as an alcohol extract. It is versatile enough to function as an infusion, decoction, or cold-water extract. For a decoction, damiana should be boiled for up to an hour and allowed to cool for 24 hours. For tea, the dosage is generally 4 g per cup or mug. Drinking the tea will produce mild effects, felt mostly in the lower abdomen, possibly as a result of increased blood flow to the region. This localized effect contributes to damiana’s repeated reports of being a relaxing agent with respect to menstrual cramps (Lowry 1984).
For stronger aphrodisiac infusions, damiana may be combined with wine or cola nuts. In Mexico, damiana is a common ingredient in certain liquors. A 1992 test gave damiana the best results among other plants and natural drugs with alleged aphrodisiac properties. Furthermore, the herbage is also widely believed to have tonic, diuretic, and stimulant characteristics (Lowry 1984). Damiana may also be burned as incense, and is often included in psychoactive smoking blends, or rolled together with hashish.
MEDICINAL USES: Though there are no ritual uses of damiana on record, the long Mayan history of damiana as a medicine is reflected in its Mayan name, mis kok, which translates to “asthma broom”. When intended to “sweep away” problematic breathing, the plant was often ground into powder and mixed with boiling water to be consumed as a medicinal tea. It was also burned as incense or smoked (Argueta V. et al. 1994 cited in Ratsch 1998, 521).
A recent Mexican nickname for damiana, “shirt remover”, reflects its primary historic medicinal role, that of an aphrodisiac. In Mexico, it has been used as a twice-a-day treatment (for two weeks at a time) to ease the intensity of and regulate menstrual cycles. In Northern Mexican regions, the plant has been utilized to treat physical weakness and nervousness. The same people have been known to use the plant to treat stomach and headaches, rheumatism, and painful scorpion stings (Argueta V. et al. 1994 cited in Ratsch 1998, 521).
In the Bahamas, the plant has found popularity as a treatment for headaches. There, it is consumed primarily by inhaling the steam made by boiling water mixed with the plant. The tea of damiana is also used to treat bed wedding (Ratsch 1998, 521).
Twentieth-century phytotherapists have further established the versatility and physical benefits of damiana for treating menstrual pains and cramps, and improving mood in general. Homeopathic uses use tincture made from the dried leaves for aphrodisiac effects, and to treat incontinence in older individuals. Other compounds, like Damiana pentarkan, which consists of damiana mixed with ginseng, muira puama, phosphoric acid, and ambergris, are presently used to treat sexual weakness (Ratsch 1998, 521).
TRADITIONAL EFFECTS: The psychoactive material of damiana includes all herbage, aside from the root. Damiana leaves are .2 to .9% essential oil, 6% hard resin, 8% soft resin, 3.5% tannin, and 6% starch. The essential consists of about half sesquiterpenes (guajan derivitaves and similar others) and about half monoterpenes (pinene, thymol). And, while it is often claimed that the leaves contain caffeine, this is largely unsubstantiated. The stems, however, have been shown to contain caffeine (Steinmetz E.F. 1960 cited in Ratsch 1998, 521).
The leaves contain the antimicrobial hydroquinone arbutin, various volatile oils which also have an antimicrobial action, and various flavonoids. Also, damiana extracts have been shown, in laboratory settings, to weakly bind to progesterone receptors, perhaps explaining the plant’s beneficial effects on the female hormone system.
Smoking damiana causes pleasant euphoria and a cannabis-like high lasting for about sixty minutes. Drinking tea made from the plant causes subtle effects that are rarely perceptible. The does cause increase blood flow to the lower abdomen, and some women have reported it can greatly ease menstrual cramps (Lowry 1984).
You can find many excellent Damiana leaf products at Shaman’s Garden
Lowry, T.P. “Damiana.” Journal of Psychoactive Drugs 16, no. 3 (1984): 267–268.
Ratsch, Christian., The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and its Applications. Rochester: Park Street Press, 1998.