Synonyms: Mandragora, Mandragon, Alraun, Dudaim, Satan’s Apple, Little Gallows Man, Genie’s Eggs
Scientific Name: Mandragora officinarum L.
Family: Solanaceae (Nightshade Family)
Southern Europe and the Levant.
Southern Europe and the Levant.
A somewhat tough-looking plant, intimately bound up with the earth and with a name that is the stuff of legends: the mandrake. The leaf rosette of this perennial plant consists of leaves which can grow up to 50 cm long and look like wrinkled chard leaves. They have no stalks but rise immediately from the crown of the root. From the fourth year, it grows a thick cluster of whitish-green, campanulate flowers with five segments, which blossom from March to May. In early summer they are followed by round, yellow to yellowish-orange, plum-sized fruits (berries) which lie on the ground. Their appearance betrays their kinship to the tomato. When the fruits begin to ripen the leaves start to yellow. By the time the fruit is fully ripe the leaf rosette has completely withered away. The root of the mandrake can grow up to one metre long. It is knobbly, forked and has strong branch roots. The mandrake loves dry, sunny or semi-shady sites with light, sandy soil.
The mandrake contains alkaloids and is highly poisonous. This potent medicinal herb should be used only by those with appropriate experience.
Homeopathy uses potentised preparations of fresh mandrake leaf for the treatment of digestive complaints and headache; the dried root is used for headache, cardiovascular conditions, poor digestion due to liver or biliary disorders and sciatica. Anthroposophical medicine uses potentised extracts of the root to treat rheumatic complaints. Folk medicine uses the root for stomach ulcers, colic, dysmenorrhoea, asthma, hay fever and whooping cough. For a long time mandrake was used as a narcotic and analgesic.
Please observe the warning that mandrake is highly poisonous. Use of the plant in a concentrated form by inexperienced people can lead to tachycardia, cold shivers, fever, extreme agitation, hallucinations, severe diarrhoea and even, in isolated cases, to death from respiratory failure!
The scientific name mandragora is thought to be derived from the Greek mandra = hut, probably a shepherd’s hut in the mountains, and agora = meeting. Evidently the plant often grew near huts. Other sources claim that the name of this plant, which was already being used before the time of the Greeks, derives from the Persian mardum-giâ = human plant or from the Assyrian nam-tar-gir(a) = male plant of the god of plagues. The name alraun comes from the Old High German Alruna, which in turn comes from Alb = incubus, faun; and runen = to murmur, whisper secretly, or runa = secret. The very word is redolent of the many myths ranked around this plant.
The mandrake has a long history of use as a medicinal plant. The Egyptian papyrus known as the Ebers Papyrus, which was written in the 16th century BC and is one of the oldest preserved records of medicines and treatments for various diseases, mentions the plant under the name dja-dja. It is, moreover, the archetypical mythical witch’s herb. No other plant is so surrounded in legend. It is the shape of the root that gave rise to these myths and legends. Its forked form gives it a human appearance: some roots were said to be female and others male. Figures carved out of the root were carefully preserved amulets thought to give protection against black magic and injuries, and money left near them was reported to multiply. The mandrake root was clothed in expensive materials, kept in boxes lined with silks and satins and bathed each week in wine. When the owner of the mandrake amulet died he left it to his son, who in return was required to place a piece of bread and a coin in his father’s coffin. Beginning in the 16th / 17th century, the great demand for these root amulets led to a vigorous trade in imitations made from other types of root. Right up until the 20th century the Wertheim department store in Berlin sold so-called lucky mandrake, which was actually carved from the roots of Alpine leek (Allium victorialis).
The mandrake is mentioned in the Old Testament under the name dudaim as an aid to conception. In Ancient Greece the mandrake was rumoured to have aphrodisiac powers. Its fruits – called love-apples – were dedicated to the goddess Aphrodite, who was also known as Mandragoritis. The root was an ingredient of love potions. Germanic culture was also familiar with the love-apple. According to tradition, if a woman presented a man with mandrake fruit on St Agnes Eve (21 January) he would fall in love with her. Additionally, the mandrake was supposed to enhance potency and was used in obstetrics. Arab tradition saw the lust allegedly aroused by the mandrake as evil and knew its fruit as Satan’s Fruit or Devil’s Apples.
There have been many reports of people seeing a glow emanating from mandrake fruit which was extinguished as soon as they drew near. No biological explanation has ever been found for this observation, which is probably best regarded as one of the many legends surrounding the mandrake.
One myth, probably from Mesopotamia, gives the following explanation for the origins of the mandrake: after being expelled from Paradise, Adam was searching for Eve, from whom God had separated him as a punishment. Exhausted and sad, he eventually lay down on the ground and conjured Eve’s appearance in a dream. In this dream he was united with her, his seed fell to earth and became the germ for the first mandrake. The plant took on human form and became Caiumarath, the first king of Persia. When the king died and his seed fell to earth, a female and a male plant grew from it. The mediaeval understanding was that mandrakes always grew under gallows. If a young man from a family of thieves who was himself innocent was hanged, a new mandrake plant grew from his urine or sperm.
Various rituals had to be observed when digging up a mandrake root. In Ancient Greece it was said that the plant should be circled three times with a sword and then dug up with the face turned to the west. A ring of dancers singing praises to the power of love accompanied the event. From the Middle Ages right up until modern times people feared the deadly curse and shriek of the mandrake root. For this reason a black dog was used to harvest it. A rope tied to the dog’s tail was attached to the loosened mandrake. Then the dog had to pull out the root. The mandrake let out such a penetrating shriek, it was claimed, that the dog immediately fell down dead. The attendant gardeners blocked their ears with wax before starting the procedure. Hildegard von Bingen held that the devil dwelt in the mandrake, and recommended that the harvested root be washed pure of all evil in spring water.
The plant from another perspective
“Cleverest spirits of the woods are mandrakes,
Long-bearded manikins with short, stubby legs,
A wrinkled sex as long as a thumb,
But no one knows from whence they come.”
Heinrich Heine (ad hoc translation from the German)
Heine’s description captures the essence of the mandrake, which appears to belong to the netherworld of the gnomes. For only a short time each year it puts forth its green crown of leaves, so old-looking with their furrowed skin, just above the surface of the earth. It bears short-stemmed, whitish-green flowers which hardly seem flower-like at all. Instead, growing as close to the root as they do, the flowers send part of their flower character down into the root, which exudes a sweetish, narcotic fragrance. The fruit also lies heavily on the earth. Its sulphurous smell and its yellow-orange colour represent a highly metabolic anti-pole to the earth-cool plant. In early summer only the fruit remains visible above the earth. As soon as the fruit is ripe the leaves withdraw entirely back into the dominant root.