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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Sunday 25th March 2012

The early end to a winter that never really got going continues and, today, it was almost like a summer’s day out in the garden. The bright sunshine drew my attention to the early growth on my Bryonia dioica, white bryony.

Bryonia dioica, white bryony

Bryonia dioica, white bryony

I’ve written before about the bryony 25th July mostly about its use to make a fake mandrake root so that ‘mountebanks and fakers’ could take advantage of the alleged aphrodisiac properties of Mandragora officinarum, mandrake.

It was Leonhart Fuchs (1501-1566) in his ‘De historia stirpium’ published in 1542 who used that phrase though he was talking about the use of Canna roots rather than bryony when he wrote;

 ‘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’.

John Gerard, in his ‘The Herbal or General History of Plants’, first published in 1598 but extensively revised by Thomas Johnson for the second edition published in 1633, speaks of the particularly vigorous root growth when he says;

Bryonia dioica, white bryony

Bryonia dioica, white bryony

'The Queen's chief surgeon, Mr. Wiiliam Godorous, a very curious and learned gentleman, shewed me a root hereof that waied half an hundredweight, and of the bignes of a child of a yeare old.'

But it was Thomas Green, in ‘The Universal Herbal’ from about 1820 who described how this growth could be constrained so as to give it the same appearance as a mandrake root.

'The roots of Bryony grow to a vast size and have been formerly by imposters brought into a human shape, carried about the country and shown for Mandrakes to the common people. The method which these knaves practised was to open the earth round a young, thriving Bryony plant, being careful not to disturb the lower fibres of the root; to fix a mould, such as is used by those who make plaster figures, close to the root, and then to fill in the earth about the root, leaving it to grow to the shape of the mould, which is effected in one summer.'

It is worth pointing out that the belief that Mandragora officinarum produces a root that resembles the human form is just that; a belief. As I found, when I re-potted mine a couple of years ago, there is no certainty that the root will grow to have a body and two legs.

Mandragora officinarum, mandrake


Mandragora officinarum, mandrake, root

Who knows? Maybe, a root being offered in the classic mandrake shape was an indication that one was dealing with one of Fuchs’ ‘mountebanks and fakers’.