What is a mandrake?

Belladonna, broomsticks and brain chemistry

In Short

  • Natural products linked to raft of psychological effects
  • Tropane alkaloids serve as structural skeleton for modern medicines

Her blood is settled, and her joints are stiff; Life and these lips have long been separated. Death lies on her like an untimely frost Upon the sweetest flower of all the field.

The most likely cause of the narcosis, disorientation and death-like state described in this passage from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet were berries of the deadly nightshade Atropa belladonna, more commonly known as sorcerer’s berries, devil’s berries or murderer’s berries. This plant and its relatives Hyoscyamus niger (henbane), Datura stramonium (thornapple), and Mandragora officinarum (mandrake) – all from the Solananceae family – are associated with the most interesting folklore of any plant. They were used by the Ancients to induce narcosis as an adjunct to surgery, and there was often much mystique associated with their collection – the ritual employed when uprooting a mandrake usually involved a dog tied to the plant and the collecting apothecary or necrophile had his ears blocked with wax.

Then on the still night air,
The bark of a dog is heard.
A shriek! A groan!
A human cry. A trumpet sound,
The mandrake root lies captive on the ground.

A clear reference to what Shakespeare referred to as:

Shrieks like mandrakes, torn out of the earth,
That living mortals, hearing them, run mad.

Source: Fotolia

Poisonous berries of deadly nightshade

However, it was their toxic properties that endeared them to the arch-poisoners of the time. Swallowing just one black berry from deadly nightshade, the unsuspecting victim could die. In fact all parts of the plant are poisonous by virtue of the tropane alkaloids that they contain – hyoscyamine and hyoscine, the major alkaloids, promote disorientation, euphoria, narcosis, or death depending on the dose.

Psychological effects

The notoriety of these plants reached its zenith in the Middle Ages when they were associated with witchcraft. A casual examination of the numerous contemporary woodcuts reveals naked witches astride their broomsticks, and the files of the Inquisition detail how witches would anoint themselves under the arms and other hairy places with the various salves and ‘oyntments’. They were in a state of euphoria and disorientation, thinking (according to Porta, a friend of Galileo, writing in 1562) they were being ‘carried off to banquets, music, dancing, and coupling with young men which they desire the most’. And then there were the ceremonies associated with the Devil. Whatever happened at these Sabbats, there is no doubting that the witches experienced the full range of pharmacological affects induced by hyoscyamine and hyoscine. These were absorbed through the skin in the armpits and groin, thus guaranteeing a rapid entry of the alkaloids into the bloodstream (and brain) and avoiding the less efficient (and dangerous) gastrointestinal route. Other modes of administration were also used – for instance, inhaling the smoke from smouldering henbane seeds was reputedly used in such diverse locations as the Temple of Delphi and mediaeval bathhouses.

Scheme 1 – Structure elucidation of atropine

A more recent report of intoxication from the smoke of henbane seeds was provided by Gustave Schenk in 1966:

“My teeth were clenched and a dizzy rage took possession of me. my feet were growing lighter, expanding and breaking loose from my body. I experienced an intoxicating sensation of flying.”

This leaves little doubt that the experiences of the witches were certainly not imagined.

In contrast to the frequent association of belladonna, henbane and mandrake with murder and magic, various plants of the Datura family were prized for their medicinal properties, especially in the Middle East and Asia. Here Datura metel and Datura fastuosa, often together with cannabis, were smoked to provide an anaesthetic for surgery, but plant extracts had myriad other medical uses. The thornapple (Datura stramonium), also known as Jimson-weed or angel’s trumpet, is common in Europe and North America, and though all parts of the plant are toxic, extracts were used by doctors as sedatives. The drug has recently been used by muggers in South America and their victims often have little recollection of being robbed. Cotton Mather, one of the early settlers in Jamestown (hence Jimson-weed), Virginia described the effects of the plant on his fellow settlers:

“Some having eaten plentifully became fools for several days – one would blow
up a feather in the air, another sit naked like a monkey grinning at the rest, and
a third fondly kiss and paw his companions, and sneer in their faces.”

All of these physiological effects are the result of a general depression of parts of the nervous system (especially the brain) as the tropane alkaloids compete for acetylcholine receptors of the muscarinic subclass, thus denying access to the neurotransmitter acetylcholine.

Hyoscine (1) (scopolamine in the US) is by far the most potent of the alkaloids since it most easily crosses the blood-brain barrier. The nearest we come to experiencing what the witches felt is if we are given a pre-medication containing scopolamine prior to surgery – the euphoria and disorientation does much to alleviate fear of the surgeon’s scalpel. A more accessible benefit of scopolamine can be experienced with anti-sickness plasters and tablets and here the drug decreases motility within the gastro-intestinal tract. This trans-dermal route of delivery can be compared with the route used by the witches.

The chemistry

It is no surprise that the tropane alkaloids and their host plants were among the first to be investigated by scientists in the early 19th century as the newly emergent discipline of chemistry shook off its connections to the increasingly discredited alchemy. Atropine (2) was isolated in pure form from deadly nightshade in the 1830s, though it was subsequently shown to be racemic, the naturally occurring (-)-hyoscyamine (3) racemising during the isolation and purification procedures, so atropine is actually (+/-)-hyoscyamine. Atropine first became popular in the mid-19th century when it was used by ophthalmologists to dilate the pupils, though ladies of the Renaissance (if not before) had already discovered this means of attaining the appearance of a doe-eyed beauty (hence the Italian bella donna).

The structure elucidation of atropine shows how labour intensive such work was prior to the introduction of modern spectroscopic techniques (Scheme 1). Alkaline hydrolysis yielded the alkaloid tropine (4) and also tropic acid (5). Further degradation of tropine via successive Hofmann eliminations from trialkylammonium salts, provided the known compound tropilidene (6). The chemical synthesis of tropinone (7), an oxidation product of tropine, by Sir Robert Robinson in 1917 is remarkable for its efficiency but also as an early example of a biomimetic synthesis, ie one modelled on what was guessed to be the pathway of biosynthesis within the plants (Scheme 2). An initial condensation between butane 1,4-dialdehyde, methylamine and the calcium salt of acetone dicarboxylic acid was followed by a double decarboxylation to yield tropinone in an overall yield of 40 per cent.

Scheme 2 – Synthesis of tropinone

The tropane alkaloids are also remarkable because they have served as lead structures for the design of a host of useful therapeutic drugs. For example, ipratropium bromide (8) (Atrovent) is a bronchodilating agent, and used to treat chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, but is almost devoid of the CNS (central nervous system) affects exhibited by atropine. In addition, tropic acid has also served as a platform for drug design. In 1922 Julius von Braun showed that the bicyclic ring of atropine could be replaced by a piperidine ring with retention of the mydriatic effect in the eye, and the drug Navigan (9), marketed by Hoffmann-LaRoche in 1929, was found to have excellent activity in the prevention of travel sickness. Reorganisation of the structure provides the analgesic, pethidine (10), which is used for pain relief during childbirth since it has a relatively short lifetime in the body and also has less effect on foetal respiration than other analgesics. Further iteration of the structure yields haloperidol (11), first prepared in 1958, which is a sedative and tranquilliser, and is still used as an anti-psychotic drug.

Atropine is still the standard antidote for nerve gas poisoning since these agents induce a build-up of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine (ACh) through inhibition of acetylcholine esterase, the enzyme that deactivates AcCh. By blocking the muscarinic AcCh receptors, atropine overcomes the effects of the nerve gas, and is standard issue for troops in war zones where these agents may be deployed.

The newer drug structures are less obviously related to the tropane skeleton but this did provide the initial structural model for these important drug classes. The pharmaceutical industry has made excellent use of drugs whose origins can be traced back to the tropane alkaloids, which also includes cocaine, but that’s another story.1

Professor John Mann is McClay chair of biological chemistry in the school of chemistry at Queen’s University Belfast, Belfast BT9 5AG.

Further Reading

Mandrake, American

Botanical.com Home Page

Mayapple
(Podophyllum peltatum LINN.)
Click on graphic for larger image

Botanical: Podophyllum peltatum (LINN.)
Family: N.O. Berberidaceae

  • Description
  • Cultivation
  • Part Used
  • Constituents
  • Medicinal Action and Uses
  • Preparatons and Dosages
  • Substitutes

—Synonyms—May Apple. Wild Lemon. Racoonberry. Duck’s Foot. Hog Apple.
—Parts Used—Root, resin.
—Habitat—The American Mandrake is a small herb with a long, perennial, creeping rhizome, a native of many parts of North America, common in the eastern United States and Canada, growing there profusely in wet meadows and in damp, open woods. —Description—The root is composed of many thick tubers, fastened together by fleshy fibres which spread greatly underground, sending out many smaller fibres at the joints, which strike downward. The stems are solitary, mostly unbranched, 1 to 2 feet high, crowned with two large, smooth leaves, stalked, peltate in the middle like an umbrella, of the size of a hand, composed of five to seven wedge-shaped divisions, somewhat lobed and toothed at the apex. Between their foot-stalks, grows a solitary, drooping white flower, about 2 inches across, appearing in May. The odour of the flower is nauseous. When it falls off, the fruit that develops swells to the size and shape of the common rosehip, being 1 to 2 inches long. It is yellow in colour and pulpy. In taste it is sweet, though slightly acid and is edible. The leaves and roots are poisonous. The foliage and stems have been used as a pot-herb, but in some cases with fatal results.

The drug was well known to the North American Indians as an emetic and vermifuge. It was included in the British Pharmacopoeia in 1864.

The Latin name is derived from pous, podos (a foot) and phyllon (a leaf), alluding to a fanciful resemblance in the palmate leaf to the foot of some web-footed aquatic bird. Hence one of the popular names of the plant – Duck’s Foot.

—Cultivation—It grows in warm, sheltered spots, such as partially shaded borders, woods, and marshes, liking a light, loamy soil. It requires no other culture than to be kept clear of weeds, and is so hardy as to be seldom injured by frost.

Propagate (1) by sowing seeds, in sandy soil, planting out in the following spring or autumn; (2) by division of roots. It propagates so fast by its creeping roots that this mode of propagation is preferred. Every part of the root will grow. Divide either in autumn, when the leaves decay, or in spring, just before the roots begin to shoot, preferably the latter.

—Part Used—The dried rhizome, from which a resin is also extracted.

It must be carefully distinguished from English Mandrake (Bryonia dioica), which is sometimes offered as Mandrake root.

It yields about 3 per cent of ash on incinceration.

Podophyllum rhizome is said to be most active when it is beginning to shoot. It is used almost entirely in the form of podophyllum resin.

The resin is prepared by making a tincture of the rhizome, removing from this the greater part of the spirit by distillation and pouring the remaining liquor into water acidified with hydrochloric acid. By this means the resin is precipitated, and may be collected and dried.

—Medicinal Action and Uses—Antibilious, cathartic, hydragogue, purgative.

Podophyllum is a medicine of most extensive service; its greatest power lies in its action upon the liver and bowels. It is a gastro-intestinal irritant, a powerful hepatic and intestinal stimulant. In congested states of the liver, it is employed with the greatest benefit, and for all hepatic complaints it is eminently suitable, and the beneficial results can hardly be exaggerated.

In large doses it produces nausea and vomiting, and even inflammation of the stomach and intestines, which has been known to prove fatal. In moderate doses, it is a drastic purgative with some cholagogue action. Like many other hepatic stimulants, it does not increase the secretion of bile so much when it acts as a purgative.

Podophyllum is a powerful medicine exercising an influence on every part of the system, stimulating the glands to healthy action. It is highly valuable in dropsy, biliousness, dyspepsia, liver and other disorders. Its most beneficial action is obtained by the use of small doses frequently given. In such circumstances, it acts admirably upon all the secretions, removing obstructions, and producing a healthy condition of all the organs in the system. In still smaller doses, it is a valuable remedy in skin diseases.

It may either be given in infusion, decoction, tincture or substance, but it is not to be given warm.

It is often employed in combination with other purgatives, such as colocynth, aloes or rhubarb, and also administered in pills, with extract of henbane or belladonna, to prevent griping.

Externally applied the resin, of podophyllum acts as an irritant. If incautiously handled, it often produces conjunctivitis, and in America it has on this account, when dissolved in alcohol, been used as a counterirritant.

—Substitutes—Podophyllum Emodi (Indian Podophyllum), a native of Northern India. The roots are much stouter, more knotty, and about twice as strong as the American. It is not identical with, nor should it be substituted for, the American rhizome. It contains twice as much podophyllotoxin, and in other respects exhibits differences. Indian podophyllum is official in India and the Eastern Colonies, where it is used in place of ordinary podophyllum.

Common Name Index
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Bear in mind “A Modern Herbal” was written with the conventional wisdom of the early 1900’s. This should be taken into account as some of the information may now be considered inaccurate, or not in accordance with modern medicine.

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Mandrake is an unassuming little root with a formidable reputation. It is considered one of the most mysterious and potent of all magickal herbs.

Mandrake was probably first adopted by magicians because of its psychoactive properties and its occasional resemblance to the human body. It is still used in countless magickal spells and charms. This article will help you sidestep the hazards of Mandrake and get in touch with this amazing plant.

There are (at least) two distinct plants that produce roots called Mandrake, so we’ll consider them each separately. (The ritual uses and correspondences will be similar for both.) All Mandrakes are potentially lethal and should never be used for self-medication.

European Mandrake comes from several species of the genus Mandragora, a member of the nightshade family. Mandragora grows in the Mediterranean region, stretching eastward into parts of China. This is the Mandrake spoken about in European manuscripts. It has a single cluster of ovate leaves, almost no stem, and a long, thick root. The root contains poisonous alkaloids, particularly atropine. Mandrake was used in magickal rituals, and also in early Chinese and European medicine as a pain reliever and sedative.

American Mandrake (Podophyllum peltatum) grows in swampy areas in the northeastern United States and parts of southern Canada. It is also called Mayapple or Wild Mandrake. American Mandrake has a skinny brown root that does somewhat resemble the fatter European Mandrake with its collection of “arms” and “legs.”

American Mandrake has a broad palmate leaf attached to a long stem. The shape of the plant gave rise to another nickname “Witch’s Umbrella.” It was said—perhaps not always incorrectly—that witches harvested the plant to poison their enemies.

Every part of the American Mandrake is poisonous: The leaves, the stems, the roots, the seeds, and the unripe fruit. (The seeded ripe fruit may be eaten in small amounts. It tastes like apple—so maybe just eat an apple?) Native Americans, over time, developed some herbal remedies using American Mandrake. A powerful cytotoxin (cell-killer), American Mandrake extract has even found its uses in modern pharmaceutical industry. It is used in topical treatments for genital warts, and some anti-cancer drugs.

English Mandrake (or “false Mandrake”) is another name for White Briony (Brionia alba). Briony is an invasive vine related to the Cucumber. Besides also having large leaves and also being poisonous when ingested, Briony doesn’t bear much resemblance to other Mandrakes. Nevertheless, some writers (including Eliphas Levi) consider it alongside Mandragora.

Mandrake for sale

Whole Mandragora is a rare commodity and there is no commercial source. They are solitary, slow-growing plants that yield a single root. We’ve seen Mandrake roots listed for hundreds, even thousands of dollars on eBay, usually shipping from Israel or Greece.

Purchasing these is not recommended, as you never know how it’s been harvested (or unfortunately, what plant you’re really getting). The price of Mandrake is so high that there is a real temptation for online sellers to export fakes.

One option is to buy seeds online and try to cultivate it yourself. Although it is native to the Mediterranean, Mandragora can be grown at home in warm-weather conditions. The plants take 2-3 years to mature and must be regularly re-potted and protected from freezing or rotting. (It seems like a pain in the butt to this brown-thumbed Witch, but some people indeed go to great lengths for their craft!) Alchemy Works has excellent detailed instructions on germinating Mandrake. And occasionally, preserved homegrown Mandrake roots for sale.

American Mandrake is available in many occult shops. (Although some won’t stock it for fear of people being dumbasses and poisoning themselves.) It is a wildcrafted product available in whole, cut and sifted, or powdered form. American Mandrake may be substituted for European (and indeed may be preferable for practitioners of American folk magick).

Mandrake essential oils and perfume oils are also available. Mandrake smells like woods and wet dirt. Occasionally, a perfumier will boast it as a base note in a concoction from the “lusty and dangerous” genre of perfumery.

Extracts of Mandrake (in glycerin or alcohol) have been spotted on the supplement market. These products are basically unregulated, and it is impossible to know their ingredients, toxicity, and proper dosage. We don’t recommend ingesting these potions or using them in your ritual formulas. Also use care with Mandrake-containing ointments purchased off the internet. With all due respect to Etsy soap-makers, few of them are chemists or doctors.

Magickal uses of mandrake

Mandrake’s curious shape meant from the beginning, that its destiny would be entwined with humans’. Few plants are as rich in superstition and magickal lore.

Literary references to Mandrake stretch back to 1st century AD, and possibly to Old Testament times. Mandrake grows underground and could only be harvested with great care. The branched root was thought to be a human form. It utters enraged screams when dug up, killing or damning the hapless forager.

Occult literature is full of instructions for extracting Mandrake roots in relative safety. Josephus of Jerusalem (circa 36-100 AD) gives the following directions:

A furrow must be dug around the root until its lower part is exposed, then a dog is tied to it, after which the person tying the dog must get away. The dog then endeavours to follow him, and so easily pulls up the root, but dies suddenly instead of his master. After this, the root can be handled without fear.

Medieval and Renaissance text devote pages upon pages to the lore of Mandrake. The plant was thought to come in male and female varieties. It is linked to the idea of the Homonculus, or miniature human, as described by Paracelsus.

Once sealed in a bottle, the Homonculus becomes a kind of servant or representation of the magician’s own self. The Mandrake root would be carefully cleaned, preserved, and “fed” to become a catalyst or vessel for magick and spirit contact. Alternatively, the Mandrake was carried as a talisman. A properly collected and prepared Mandrake was one of the rarest objects in any magician’s cabinet.

Writers of the past were also familiar with Mandrakes hallucinatory and hypnotic effects. Mandrake, along with Belladonna and Henbane, was one of the favorite herbs in recipes for the notorious Witch’s salve known as flying ointment.

Besides protection and magickal power, Mandrake is associated with fertility magick. In the book of Genesis (30:14-22), Rachel barters with her sister Leah for mandrakes so that she might conceive a child. Mandrakes are also mentioned in the long erotic poem Song of Songs (7:13).

“Mandrake” is the King James translation of a word more closely meaning “love-plant.” Some biblical scholars now believe that the “mandrake” of the Bible is ginseng or another plant thought to promote fertility.

The influence of scripture on American and Afro-Caribbean magick means that Mandrake is still a hearty player in the world of love and fertility charms. Its deep, woody odor somewhat resembles Patchouli. (Mandrake has all of Patchouli’s brooding earthiness, but not its outspoken skunkiness.) A Mandrake shaped like a phallus is supposed to be the best for love magick.

In Western occultism, Mandrake is known as an ancient, subtle teacher of Earth mysteries. (When packaging it, I’m sometimes taken aback by the strong, low pulse of energy it emits.) It is sacred to Hecate, Diana, and Aphrodite. (Mandrakes found near crossroads are said to be the most powerful.) Use Mandrake for protection, fertility magick, Dark Moon vision quests, and any Saturn workings.

Mandrake energy is complex, and Mandrake roots may have a will of their own. (Gardeners of Mandrake will attest that the plant has a peculiar awareness of its surroundings.) If you’re not sure what to do with your Mandrake, try meditating with the root and ask it how it wishes to be used.

Correspondences:

Mandrake is a Saturn plant, like most poisonous herbs. The elemental correspondence is Earth. (Some sources, citing Mandrake’s purgative power or damp habitat, go with Fire or Water, respectively.)

Spells and formulas with Mandrake:

After a thousand or more years of Mandrake magick, there are more Mandrake spells than you can shake a spade at. Here’s a sampling:

Steep whole or sliced roots in a jar with alcohol for three moon cycles to make a Mandrake extract. This versatile ingredient can be used to empower many spells and rituals, or to bathe ritual tools.

To protect the home, sprinkle a Mandrake with blessed water and salt and bury it near the front door.

Mandrake’s resemblance to the human form makes it a popular ingredient in sympathetic magick. Tie American Mandrake roots together to make a doll-baby or poppet, and dress according to your intention.

Powdered Mandrake root is used to enhance fertility and prosperity charms.

Anoint a white or black candle with Mandrake oil when performing divination (white for insight on situations known to the reader, black to uncover hidden things). Apply Mandrake oil to the third eye for scrying.

Mandrake steeped in red wine is a traditional love philtre—however, we don’t recommend drinking it. Instead, tie a mandrake root to the stem of the chalice, or pour out the potion as a libation.

A bundle of Mandrake tied with a blue ribbon is a charm for revealing truth.

Mix with Dittany of Crete and Gum Arabic to make an incense for spirit manifestation. (Use only in well-ventilated areas.)

Add Mandrake to your Hecate, Crone, or Dark Moon altar.

Precautions:

In case you’re just joining us, Mandrake is toxic to humans and animals.

Don’t consume it any form. Don’t smoke, drink, or chew it. It will not get you high, it will not cure cancer or genital warts or make you a badass Witch. It will just cause uncontrollable vomiting or possibly worse. It’s not even advisable to burn incenses containing Mandrake in close quarters, as some people have reported nausea from exposure to the vapor.

The safest way to use Mandrake is in dried form, as a talisman or charm. Keep away from children, pets, or others who might mistake the roots for food.

Scent Profile: Earthy, Musky, Wood, Mulch, Wet Dirt

Correspondences: Saturn, Earth

Occult properties of herbs are provided for historical interest only, and no outcome is guaranteed. Nothing on this website should be taken as medical or legal advice. Please use herbs responsibly.

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Is Mandrake Poisonous – Can You Eat Mandrake Root

Few plants have such a storied history rich in folklore and superstition as the poisonous mandrake. It features in modern tales such as Harry Potter fiction, but past references are even more wild and fascinating. Can you eat mandrake? Ingestion of the plant was once thought to sedate and improve sexual function. Further reading will help understand mandrake toxicity and its effects.

About Mandrake Toxicity

The oftentimes forked root of mandrake is said to resemble the human form and, as such, brought to rise many supposed effects of the plant. People who live where the plant grows wild have often mistakenly eaten its round fruits with surprising results. Although fantasy writers and others have given the plant a colorful back story, mandrake is a potentially dangerous vegetative selection that can get the diner into serious trouble.

Mandrake is a large leaved plant with a stout root that may grow offshoots. The leaves are arranged in rosettes. The plant produces small round berries from pretty violet-blue

flowers, which have been referred to as Satan’s apples. In fact, the late summer fruits emit a strongly apple-like aroma.

It thrives in full to partial sun position in rich, fertile soil where plenty of water is available. This perennial is not frost tender but the leaves usually die back in winter. Early spring will see it send out new leaves soon followed by the flowers. The entire plant may grow 4-12 inches (10-30 cm.) tall and to answer the question, “is mandrake poisonous,” yes, it is.

Effects of Poisonous Mandrake

The fruit of mandrakes have been used cooked as a delicacy. The roots were believed to enhance manly vigor and the entire plant has historical medicinal uses. The grated root can be applied topically as an aid to relieve ulcers, tumors and rheumatoid arthritis. Leaves were similarly used on the skin as a cooling salve. The root was often used as a sedative and aphrodisiac. With these potential medical benefits, one often wonders how will mandrake make you sick?

Mandrake is in the nightshade family, just like tomatoes and eggplants. However, it is also in the same family as deadly jimsonweed and belladonna.

All parts of mandrake plants contain the alkaloids hyoscamine and scopolamine. These produce hallucinogenic effects as well as narcotic, emetic and purgative results. Blurred vision, dry mouth, dizziness, abdominal pain, vomiting, and diarrhea are common initial symptoms. In severe poisoning cases, these progress to include the slowing of the heartbeat and often death.

Even though it was often administered prior to anesthesia, it is no longer considered safe to do so. Mandrake toxicity is high enough that it could get a novice or even expert user killed or in the hospital for an extended stay. It is best to admire the plant but make no plans to ingest it.

As a child, no villain was to me more savage than the zucchini. My mother grew the scoundrels in the backyard, and whether she was deliberately scheming to improve her yields, or the climate just happened to have been ideal those years, season after season they got bigger and bigger. They grew so large and numerous that I eventually had to leave home—mostly because I went to college, but the zucchini certainly didn’t help.

I realize now that I had been quite lucky in my tanglings with zucchini, for in the Mediterranean there grows a far more murderous plant called the mandrake. Its roots can look bizarrely like a human body, and legend holds that it can even come in male and female form. It’s said to spring from the dripping fat and blood and semen of a hanged man. Dare pull it the from the earth and it lets out a monstrous scream, bestowing agony and death to all those within earshot.

Yet there is a way to safely uproot a mandrake—safely, that is, if you aren’t a dog with a bastard of an owner. If you really, really want one, the myths say to tie a hungry hound’s leash or even its tail to the plant. Back away, plug your ears with wax (a folkloric echo, by the way, of Odysseus ordering his crew to do the same as they passed the devious Sirens), and reveal a treat. The overzealous dog will sprint and consequently uproot the mandrake, but will immediately keel over in searing pain as its quarry lies there screaming.

Wikimedia

How did it come to this? When did we start sacrificing our pets to shouting plants? How could our legendary fear and hatred of the mandrake surpass even my legendary fear and hatred of zucchini?

In reality, mandrakes aren’t what you would call “super great” for human consumption, at least in large quantities. It’s a member of the famously deadly nightshade family, plants that contain, among other toxins, the highly poisonous compound solanine, which naturally wards off insects. (Tomatoes and potatoes, by the way, also belong to this family and do indeed contain solanine, though the bulk of the compound is isolated to the leaves instead of the edible bits.)

These solanum alkaloids also are present in the mandrake, but their side effects of delirium and gastrointestinal distress and even shock didn’t bother the ancient Greeks nohow. They valued the mandrake for the number of other compounds that give it soporific properties, that is, the root can make you really sleepy. Indeed, the Greeks used it as an anesthetic for surgery, a practice that continued into the Middle Ages. The Greeks also used it as an aphrodisiac, steeping the root in wine or vinegar—mandrake is known as the “love-apple of the ancients,” and is associated with the Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite.

Similarly, the ancient Hebrews believed the mandrake could be used to induce conception. This appears in Genesis, where Rachel, supposedly barren, ate mandrake and was able to conceive Joseph. In the Middle Ages, the fertility powers of mandrake gained new credence under the so-called doctrine of signatures, which held that plants bearing resemblances to body parts could be used to treat their associated limbs and organs. Mandrakes can look rather like babies, so those having trouble conceiving would sleep with them under their pillows. The mandrake roots, not actual babies.

Wikimedia

And it wasn’t just about mandrakes getting people horny and fertile. According to Anthony John Carter, writing in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine in 2003, medieval folks carried mandrake roots around as good luck charms, hoping the plant would grant them not only wealth and the power to control their destiny, but the ability to control the destinies of others as well. The Catholic Church wasn’t so hot on this, as you can imagine. And unfortunately for Joan of Arc, at her trial in 1431 she was accused of habitually carrying one. She denied this, though it didn’t really matter. Her accusers seemed more concerned that she dressed like a dude and stuff rather than what kind of vegetation she had in her pockets.

Still, the mandrake was widely held to work miracles. But miracles don’t come cheap: The belief in its curative effects led to runaway demand. “Mandrake roots became highly sought after in their native Mediterranean habitat,” Carter writes, “and attempts to protect them from theft are thought to have been the source of” the myth of the ferocious plant.

And high demand for a valuable commodity will also, of course, lead to the proliferation of knockoffs. Mandrakes were the veritable luxury purses of the 16th century, and fraudsters went to great lengths to counterfeit the anthropomorphic root. Typically they used bryony, a kind of climbing plant and member of the gourd family, carving it into a human form and, for added realism and perversion, adding wheat or grass for pubic hair.

The great botanist William Turner scolded such hucksters in 1568, sometimes using Y’s instead of I’s presumably for dramatic effect: “The rootes which are counterfited and made like little pupettes or mammettes which come to be sold in England in boxes with heir and such forme as a man hath are nothyng elles but foolishe trifles and not naturall. For they are so trymmed of crafty theves to mocke the poore people with all and to rob them both of theyr wit and theyr money.”

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It was a far better fate, Turner would have had to admit, than you or your dog dropping dead after getting an earful from a mandrake root. Turner himself described how to prepare mandrake root for anesthesia, making sure to note that it is a rather unpredictable medicine, what with the, you know, putting people into comas. Accordingly, around this time, notes Carter, the use of mandrake roots in medicine rapidly declined. “The popularity of the myths, however, remained undimmed,” he writes.

The mythologizing of the mandrake—all the screaming and growing out of the blood of hanged men and such—shows up in the works of Shakespeare and the dramatist John Webster. They helped seal the villainization of the mandrake, even for several hundred more years. At the turn of the 20th century, for instance, a British bloke digging a garden cut through some of bryony roots. He mistook it for a mandrake, “and ceased to work at once, saying it was ‘awful bad luck.’ Before the week was out, he fell down some steps and broke his neck.”

Whether the man’s dog was also injured in the fall, however, remains unclear. The potential irony therefore is sadly lost to history.

Leach, M. and Fried, J. (1949) Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend. Harper and Row

Carter, A. (2003) Myths and Mandrakes. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. 96(3): 144–147

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