Common Name: The Mandrake
Species Name: Mandragora officinarum
Habitat: Fields; open, sunny areas
Native To: Europe
Mythology of the Mandrake:
Mythology regarding the Mandrake first circulated some 3,000 years ago. The best-known species of Mandrake: (Mandragora officinarum) has been used since ancient times in sorcery and witchcraft and for medicinal purposes. The Mandrake became an important plant to witches as an ingredient in their popular flying recipes.
Legend holds that on pulling it from the earth, it lets out a blood-curdling scream, bestowing death to those within earshot. Yet there is a way to uproot a mandrake safely, Flavius Josephus, a first-century AD Jewish historian, described one method for surviving the mandrake’s scream. A dog would be tied to the base of the shouty plant with a rope while the owner made a hasty retreat. When the dog ran away, it would pull up the root, killing the dog and allowing the person to safely pick up the root and use it.
Morphology and Chemical Properties:
Mandrake can be identified by their low-lying nature and their rosette pattern of leaves. The leaves are long (up to 40cm) and shiny green. The colour of the flower varies from species to species, but commonly are pale pinks and violets, being 4-5cm across. Mandrakes are late bloomers, with flowers common between September and December. As the flowers turn to fruit they ripen from green to yellow or orange. (The esters in the fruit impart a pleasant aroma, somewhat apple-like) and they are egg-shaped, rather than round. The mandrake’s roots can look bizarrely like a human body, and legend holds that it can even come in male and female form.
The tropane alkaloid Hyoscyamine present in mandrake is anticholinergic, which means it blocks a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine. The blocking of this neurotransmitter leads to several physiological changes in the body, but in terms of a psychotropic action, it can sedate and cause delirium. Such actions of the powerful alkaloids in mandrake means that there is a very fine line between the psychotropic effects that are sought in preparations such as ‘flying recipes’ and toxicity.
This fine line between safety and toxicity is well known in the Solanaceae family, of which mandrakes are a member. Traditionally the plant was used to address sleep issues and pain, but its use has obvious issues in light of safety considerations. The root has the highest concentration of alkaloids, but they are present in all parts of the plant. Drying the root intensifies the concentrations of the psychotropic alkaloids.
Historic Medicinal Use:
The Greeks used it as an anaesthetic for surgery, a practice that continued well into the Middle Ages. They also used it as an aphrodisiac, soaking 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. Thinking it resembled the male sexual organ, they use it to create powerful love potions. The Romans believed mandrake could cure demonic possessions, and ancient Hebrews believed it could be used to induce conception. 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 also look like babies, so those having trouble conceiving would sleep with them under their pillows. According to Anthony John Carter in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 2003, medieval people carried mandrake roots around as good luck charms, hoping the plant would bring them not only wealth and power but the ability to control others destiny.
Still, the mandrake was widely held to work miracles. The belief in its curative effects led to increased demand. “Mandrake roots became highly sought after in their native Mediterranean habitat,” Carter states; “and attempts to protect them from theft are thought to have been the source of the myth of the ferocious plant. “High demand for such a commodity also leads to the proliferation of fakes, counter-fitting the anthropomorphic root. They would typically use bryony, a type of climbing plant and member of the gourd family, first carving it into a human form.
Presence in Literature:
The mythologizing of the mandrake appears in the works of Shakespeare and the dramatist John Webster. William Shakespeare created a role for the poison in Romeo and Juliet. The friar gives Juliet a mandrake-laced sleeping potion and makes this promise:
“The roses in thy lips and cheeks shall fade
To paly ashes, thy eyes’ windows fall
Like death when he shuts up the day of life”William Shakespeare play titled: ‘Romeo and Juliet’
The authors helped seal the legend of the mystical mandrake and more recently, JK Rowling further immortalised the notorious plant in her Harry Potter series.
Public interest in the mandrake has been growing steadily in recent years, due to curiosity regarding organic plants and herbal healing, using it in homoeopathic and folk medicine and applications in modern witchcraft and occult practices.
Go and catch a falling star
Get with child a mandrake root
Tell me when all past years are,
Or who cleft the devil’s foot…John Donne poem titled: ‘Song’
Enjoy reading about the Mandrake? Check out Victoria Protheroe’s other BioWeb articles:
- Heiser, H. (1969) Nightshades: The Paradoxical Plants, W. H. Freeman.
- 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.
- Stewart, A. (2019) Wicked Plants, Timber Press
- Thompson, C. (1968) The Mystic Mandrake, University Books.