One of the most enchanting things for me about visiting or living in another country is discovering local specialties which, even though they may be very popular there, have been totally unknown to me. Last week, while shopping at a local Mexican store in the Phoenix Arizona area, I happened to notice a rather large display of damiana tea in various forms. You'd probably not find this at Safeway or Kroger (Fry's), but in any Mexican store it's a given. So I thought I'd share a little bit about this herb.
Damiana is practically a weed in the Baja California peninsula, and has been gathered and used for centuries by the Guaycura native Americans there. (Guaycura was the way the Spanish pronounced huajoro, which means friend.) The herb is most popularly used as a tea, but is also made into a liqueur called, strangely enough, Guaycura. The bottle I bought in one of the small grocery stores around PdB was made in Jalisco (the state just south of Nayarit, where both Puerto Vallarta and Guadalajara are located), but evidently there are local varieties available in Baja.
As you can see, the Guaycura bottle is made in the shape of an indigenous fertility goddess, and is suggestive of the supposed aphrodisiac qualities of the herb. There seems to be some dispute about this, however. One hundred years ago, a prominent pharmacist in Cleveland Ohio, John Uri Lloyd, put out this pamphlet on damiana, in which he says that these qualities have been exaggerated in the US. Nevertheless, I did hear one Mexican refer to it as "liquid viagra", so I'm not too sure about that.
If you'd like to try either damiana tea or Guaycura, they are readily available in local shops. The tea is very inexpensive, and the liqueur costs about 140 pesos (about $14 US). In the US go to a Mexican supermarket for the damiana tea, but you'll have to hunt for the Guaycura. I saw it advertised for as much as $180 US per bottle, which seems slightly high to me.
If you read Spanish, you can download this publication La Cultura de los Californios (PDF, 2.7 megs), which tells more about indigenous culture there. I'd also like to mention that if you're interested in herbs, Lloyd has a number of pamphlets available on the web which are interesting and available for download. He also wrote a book called Etidorhpa (Aphrodite spelled backwards) which details a trip to the center of the earth. It's a good read, but one does wonder if some of the mushrooms he cataloged didn't allow him to take trips while sitting in his armchair.