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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Saturday 26th November 2011

My Mandragora officinarum, mandrake, is starting to come through.

Mandragora officinarum, mandrake

If you read about gardening in any form, whether in magazines or online forums, you’ll know that there has been a lot of interest in some unusual, or rather, untimely events and what they may mean both short and long term.

Just a week ago, I took some pictures in the garden showing some conflicting events; flowers out that should have finished and other plants coming through earlier than expected. There’s been lots of speculation about whether this is part of a trend caused by climate change or simply the result of unusual weather patterns, this year.

My house has a large sunroom, part of the original design rather than added on later. It was the sunroom that really sold us the house because it gives a clear view of the garden and the fields beyond that can be enjoyed regardless of the weather. But, as often happens in life, it turned out to have another advantage that we hadn’t thought of. Being bright all year round it is the ideal place to grow plants that wouldn’t survive outside.

Catha edulis, khat

Catha edulis, khat

It’s where I grow my Catha edulis, khat, and that has certainly thrived. Or, rather, they. Because I wasn’t confident in my husbandry, I put three plants into one large pot and now have three fairly substantial trees. I expect they are getting over-crowded in the roots but I doubt if there is anything I can do about it. I suppose what I should do is take some cuttings and try and get them to root so that I can replace the plants if the present ones start to fail. But, that may require horticultural skills I don’t possess.

But, back to the mandrake. I bought a small bare root plant in March 2009. I started it in a pot and then planted it out in the summer. It isn’t a plant that does well this far north, however, so I dug it up and replanted it in a pot to be kept in the sunroom.

Mandrake officinarum has an unusual growth habit in a normal year. It appears early in the new year, flowers by March/April. If it fruits, I’ll come back to that, the fruits form around May/June and the foliage dies back by the end of July just leaving the fruits on the surface of the soil. If it fruits.

In the Alnwick Garden Poison Garden the mandrake only once produced fruit and then only one or two. The picture I have of a good display of fruit was taken in the Chelsea Physic Garden which, as well as being a couple of hundred miles south of here, has a micro-climate enabling it to grow plants that won’t grow elsewhere in London.

My own has never fruited. In 2010, it flowered quite well but produced no fruit and this year, perhaps because of the cold spring, it didn’t even flower well. I wonder if the early start, this season, will be helpful or harmful. I would love to get some fruit of my own but I’ll need to read up on the botany of the plant to make sure I’m doing the right things.

The problem with getting fruit from mandrake growing in England is, sometimes, given as the reason for Bryonia dioica, white bryony, being known as English mandrake. You would expect there to be some physical similarity between plants given variations of the same common name. For example, plants in the Zantedeschia genus are called arum lilies because they look very much like plants from the Arum genus, such as Arum maculatum, cuckoopint.

Mandragora officinarum, mandrake, root

Mandragora officinarum, mandrake, root

Bryonia dioica looks nothing like Mandragora officinarum. It is a climbing plant whereas the mandrake is very low growing. The reason for the name ‘English mandrake’, is because it was the habit of the charlatans of the past to force the bryony to produce roots that looked like mandrake so that they could exploit the alleged aphrodisiac effects of the Mandragora.

I say ‘alleged’ because the reputation of mandrake was based entirely on the appearance of the root. Traditionally, the root is supposed to resemble a man and, under the Doctrine of Signatures, that means it will be good for men. As the picture shows, the root does not necessarily have any physical resemblance.

Of course, the effect of Bryonia dioica is not ‘alleged’; it is very real. Often described as a dangerous purgative I wonder what the reaction of a duped user would be to find that the effect he was expecting was replaced by something rather less pleasant.  

Had there been a 13th century Trade Descriptions Act, I’m sure the dealers would say in their defence that they had only promised that anyone eating the root they were selling would be up all night.