By David Randall
Published: 01 April 2007
A chance discovery by a Berkshire allotment-holder that a plant widely
available in garden centres has the same effect on men as Viagra has
been confirmed by experts at one of the world's leading botanical
The plant is winter-flowering heather, and botanists at the Royal
Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh, many of them heather experts who have
recognised the source of its active ingredient, now expect it to be the
next must-have plant in British gardens. Demand is already high.
Nurseries and garden centres in some areas are having trouble finding
sufficient supplies as word spreads of the plant's unexpected
A spokesman for Wyevale Garden Centres, which has 106 UK branches,
said: "At first, it was just a trickle of inquiries, but now stores are
virtually being besieged each weekend. We have had men buying dozens of
the plants and, at one store in Croydon, there were men old enough to
know better fighting over the last remaining trays."
The latest gardening craze was triggered by a discovery by a
55-year-old furniture restorer, Michael Ford, on his allotment. He was
always experimenting with drinks made from different plants and one day
he tried an infusion from his winter-flowering heather. He said: "The
effect was almost immediate. I had to stay in my potting shed for an
hour or so before I could decently walk down the street."
He then contacted the Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh, famous for
their work with the heather family, to see if they could offer an
explanation. They could. Botanist Alan Bennell said: "This first
surfaced when East European chemists reported finding a Viagra-type
chemical in the floral tissues of winter-flowering heaths. They were
able to isolate measurable amounts of material that is an analogue of
the active principle in Viagra."
Winter-flowering heather, he explained, belongs to the genus Erica, a
close relative of our own native heather. He said: "As yet, the active
ingredient has not been found in these British forms, but it is proving
to be most concentrated in many of the widely available hybrids sold as
winter-flowering heather in garden centres. Particularly potent are
forms of Erica carnea, the Alpine heather, whose range extends into the
"The work of these biochemists and physiologists - much of it disrupted
and lost during the ravages of war - is now coming to light."
From the limited amount of information available, it is suggested the
Viagra-analogue is best extracted by steeping the detached small
flowers in neat alcohol. An infusion of about 20g of flowers in 100ml
of fluid liberates the active principle. A quality full-strength vodka
(at least 40 per cent) is also effective. Mr Bennell added: "There is
some confusion whether oral consumption or topical application is more
But not everyone is happy about this new discovery. One woman shopping
at a Wyvales in Dorking yesterday said: "It's amazing. My husband has
never shown any interest in gardening before, but now he's out there
night and day fussing over his heathers. Frankly, I preferred it when
he left the garden to me and wasn't so frisky."