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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Monday 25th July 2011

Mandragora officinarum, mandrake

Mandragora officinarum, mandrake

Mandragora officinarum, mandrake

The 'love apples'

Mandragora officinarum, mandrake

The root

Back in June,  I mentioned the difference between mandrake and English mandrake, that is Mandragora officinarum and Bryonia dioica, but just in terms of their principle effects.

With my own Bryonia, usually called white bryony, now fully entwined through a hazel tree, Corylus avellana, and in full bloom, I thought I’d look at look at some of the physical differences and try and suggest why, I believe, the name English mandrake arose.

Mandragora officinarum is a low growing perennial that, in my part of the world, appears early in the year, flowers around April, May and has died back by the height of the summer. If the flowers produce fruit these fruits, sometimes called love apples, lie on the ground. Bryonia dioica, on the other hand, is a climbing plant that puts out long stems and grips onto to anything it can find before producing small white flowers in July.

Looking at the foliage, you would never confuse the two. But, it is the roots that give both plants their reputations and gives bryony its name.

Traditionally, it is said that the root of Mandragora officinarum looks like the human form. It is true that it, often, produces a bifurcated root appearing to be like the two legs of a human but this is also true of many other plants including, of course, many root vegetables like carrot and parsnip. And, as I found with my own plant, the mandrake does not always produce bifurcation.


This assumed appearance of the root was taken, using the Doctrine of Signatures, to show that the plant would be a useful aid to sexual function for a man. That, of course, made mandrake root very valuable and contributed to the Mandragora officinarum having some of the richest folklore of any plants. Whole books have been written about the stories associated with mandrake, the best known being, of course, that the plant will scream when pulled out of the ground.

Bryonia dioica, white bryony

Bryonia dioica, white bryony

Bryonia dioica, white bryony

Bryony, on the other hand, is notable for its very vigorous root growth. This gives the chance to create a root that looks like mandrake. It is said that people would either make a mould shaped like a bifurcated mandrake root and plant a Bryonia into it or they would lift the bryony, carve the root to be mandrake-shaped and return it to the ground for the cuts to heal over before harvesting the plant for sale.

Obviously, when offered for sale the root would be detached from the foliage since that would be a complete giveaway. Given that Mandragora is a narcotic and Bryonia a laxative, you have to wonder how English mandrake was received by people duped into buying it.


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