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Mandragora officinarum, mandrake

Summary

One of the most written about plants in history with whole books devoted to its properties and its ability to scream when pulled from the ground.

'Poisonous Plants 1-2-1' video

This short video summarising the story of the mandrake is just one of a series.

Family

Solanaceae

Meaning of the Name

Mandragora
As the plant with more folklore than any other, it is not surprising that there are many stories surrounding the meaning of the name. From this distance in time, it becomes impossible to know if the plant was named for some person or action or that person or action was named for the plant.

Mandragora officinarum, mandrake

Mandragora officinarum, mandrake 

This attempt to explain the name is, mostly, taken from ‘Mystic Mandrake’, C.J.S.Thompson’s 1934 book on the plant and its many stories.

The most logical explanation for the name is that it was Latinised from two Sanskrit words; ‘Mandros’, ‘sleep’ and ‘Agora’, ‘substance’. The whole, therefore, meaning ‘sleep producing drug’. There are, though, attempts to bring its name back to its alleged aphrodisiac properties which are based on the appearance of the root.

In Persia, it was called ‘merdomgia’, ‘man-like plant’ and attempts have been made to demonstrate how this could have become corrupted to Mandragora based on the belief that Persia was the place of discovery of the plant.
 
officinarum
A variation of ‘officinale’ from the Latin for workshop or office and, thus, given to the species of a plant which was sold in shops or pharmacies and, by extension, a useful plant.

Common Names and Synonyms

mandrake, Satan's apple. Was Atropa mandragora.

How Poisonous, How Harmful?

A relative of Atropa belladonna so contains the tropane alkaloids, notably hyoscine (also called scopalamine), hyoscyamine and atropine.

Hallucinogenic, narcotic, emetic and purgative. The effects are similar to deadly nightshade and henbane.

Incidents

Few reported incidents in recent times for Mandragora officinarum possibly because the plant is no longer used medicinally and is much less frequently grown. In southern Italy, however, and particularly in Sicily accidental poisoning with Mandragora autumnalis is occasionally reported mostly when it is mistaken for Borago officinalis, borage.

In March 2015, one such incident was written about by the victim, a British horticulturalist currently working in Sicily, Ben Jones. His account of the episode makes interesting reading.

Folklore and Facts

Almost no plant has a more detailed folklore with complete books being written about this one plant. What follows is, therefore, only a selection.

Root of Mandragora officinarum

*As this picture of the root of my own
Mandragora demonstrates the idea that a
mandrake root always has two 'legs' and a
body is as fanciful as the stories associated
with it.

Mandrake root is supposed to look like the male form (having two legs, a body and, often a hairy top)* and, under the Doctrine of Signatures, its use would give a man that power which men are always willing to spend a lot of money to get. Its high price was maintained, in part, by the difficulty of harvesting it because, as every Harry Potter fan knows, mandrake screams when you pull it up. The scream was fatal so it was common to tie a dog to the plant and let the dog pull it up and suffer the curse.

But the story of the mandrake does not start with J K Rowling. The first known mention of mandrake is disputed. Some sources, even today, maintain that it was known and used in ancient Egypt. This belief that the Egyptians knew and used mandrake root is based on Dr. Joachim’s German translation of the Egyptian Hieratic language word d’d’ or didi.  Joachim took this to be from the same root as the Hebrew word dudaim which is the mandrake. However, between Joachim’s late 19thC German translation and Dr. Bryan’s English version, written in 1930, several eminent Egyptologists had concluded that d’d’ was in fact a mineral, haematite. 

The main evidence of use of mandrake in Egypt is, therefore, suspect. What remains are designs on various artefacts from Egyptian times which do appear to be stylistic depictions of the mandrake. It is possible that the Egyptians knew of mandrake as an imported extract and the depictions of it were based on descriptions of the plant rather than firsthand observation.

For many people, the Old Testament is the first confirmed reference to mandrake. Genesis, chapter 30, verse 14 says that Reuben ‘found mandrakes in the field’ during the wheat harvest. According to Hebrew folklore, however, what Reuben found was a dead donkey which had been tethered to a mandrake and, trying to escape its tether, had pulled the mandrake up and died as a result. This may be the start of the story of the scream which was, almost certainly, perpetuated as a method of avoiding theft of a valuable plant.

Mandragora officinarum, mandrake

Mandragora officinarum, mandrake, the fruits

There is a mass of speculation about whether the plant found by Reuben was mandrake and whether it is the same plant described in ‘The Song of Solomon’ chapter 7 verse 13 ‘The mandrakes give a smell, and at our gates are all manner of pleasant fruits, new and old, which I have laid up for thee, O my beloved’. Arguments centre over whether the ‘smell’ was pleasant, since the smell of mandrake is not, at least not to European noses. Some people say that mandrake would not be ripe at the time of wheat harvesting which others counter by saying that Genesis does not say the plant was ripe. And so it goes on. 

But Genesis is not the only religious connection for mandrake. Those who wish to offer a rational explanation for the alleged resurrection of Jesus Christ sometimes suggest that the sponge he was given to suck from when he complained of thirst on the cross contained juice of the Mandragora which resulted in a deathlike sleep.

In Germany, mandrake was kept as a talisman rather than consumed, especially if its shape was particularly manlike. Often mandrake, or bryony, was uprooted, cut to make its appearance more human and replanted so that the cuts would heal and the shape would appear entirely natural. Such roots were very expensive and kept, in small wooden boxes, for many years, but it was important to take the manikin out on a Friday and give it a bath. Failure to do this would cause the root to shriek until it got its bath. The bath water could be sold to be drunk by a pregnant woman to ease childbirth.

Some Literary References to Mandrake.

Although not referred to by name, Chaucer, in ‘The Knighte’s Tale’, talks about a wine made of narcotics which made the jailer sleep.

In Henry IV, Part 2, Falstaff twice refers to mandrake, comparing Justice Swallow, naked, to the root.

In Antony & Cleopatra, Cleopatra asked for Mandragora to help sleep through the time Antony is away.

In Othello, Iago says that the Moor’s jealousy is preventing him from sleep and neither mandrake nor opium could help.

Some sources think Juliet took mandrake to induce her deathlike sleep and this power is also alluded to in Cymbeline.

The shriek of pulling it up is mentioned in Romeo & Juliet and King Henry VI and its power to cause insanity comes into Macbeth.

Ben Jonson in Masque of Queens has a witch talk of gathering the root.

Marlowe in the Jew of Malta effects Barabas’s escape from prison by having him drink mandrake so that he is thought to be dead.

Webster in the Duchess of Malfi makes several references to mandrake.

There are many other references in less well known works and there was even a silent film, made in the 1920s, where mandrake growing at the feet of a hanged man played a major role in the plot.

Though not mentioned by name, some have argued that the ‘love potion’ in Wagner’s ‘Tristan & Isolde’ was based on mandrake.

The belief that mandrake grew under a gallows was widespread but had numerous refinements. In Wales and parts of Germany, it grew from the tears of an innocent man, hanged. Elsewhere in Germany, the requirement was that the hanged man be the son of a family of thieves or someone whose mother stole when pregnant.

Thus, the hanged man had not chosen to be a thief but could not avoid the family business and so retained some degree of innocence. Sometimes, the hanged man had to have never had sexual intercourse. Generally, bodily fluids other than tears were what caused the mandrake to grow.

The ritual surrounding the harvesting of mandrake has many variations. Sometimes, it is essential that a black dog is used. Sometimes, the dog must be starving so that throwing a piece of meat will cause it to lunge forward. In parts of Eastern Europe, it was essential that only an expert attempt to uproot a mandrake as any damage caused to the root would be replicated on the person who caused it. In Armenia, the mandrake was to be visited on three successive days in the company of a young and handsome virgin prior to being harvested. The idea of a, probably, lusty young man, going into the woods to visit a plant with the alleged properties of mandrake in the company of a young, handsome virgin makes one wonder whether, by the third day, the young woman still fulfilled the required criteria.

Mandragora officinarum, mandrake

Leonhart Fuchs in 'De historia stirpium' says ‘Mountebanks and fakers hanging around the marketplace are peddling roots shaped in human form they claim are Mandragora although it is quite evident that they are fashioned and made by hand from canna roots carved in human likeness’. Canna roots are a commercial source of starch so this deception may have been less harmful than using the purgative bryony.

Though not, generally, a key component of the 'soporific sponge', used to achieve anaesthesia for the performance of surgery, mandrake does feature in some recipes. The precise origin of the sponge recipe is impossible to determine but one of the first published accounts is found in the 'Antidotarium' of Nicolaus Salernitanus, Nicholas of Salerno, printed in 1470 but which would have to have been written in the 12th century if it is the work of Nicholas. In this recipe, the normally quoted formula of opium, henbane and hemlock is augmented with mulberry juice, mandrake, ivy and lettuce.

A sponge would be soaked in the juice of these plants and then dried to be held in stock until required. Wetting the sponge and placing it over the patient's nose and mouth resulted in the inhalation of the narcotic fumes. It is said that sleep lasting up to 96 hours could be achieved so that the body had the opportunity to recover from the trauma of surgery as well as the patient being insensible during the procedure.

On the subject of the supposed manlike shape of the root, John Gerard, after noting that the division of the mandrake root is no different from that often seen with carrot or parsnip and such like, goes off on one of his rants about the tales associated with the plant.   ‘There have been many ridiculous tales...[put about by] some one or more who sought to make themselves famous and skilful above others.’  He cites its alleged growth under the gallows and ‘many other such doltish dreams’ including ‘many fables of loving matters, too full of scurrilitie to set forth in print’. He also talks of ‘idle drones’ who carved the roots of bryony to convince ‘simple and unlearned people’ that this was ‘the true mandrake’.