Mandrake (Mandragora officinarum)
The screamin’ demon.
I like reading mythology and fantasy books, so plants that have a long history in both are on my radar for this blog. We’ve already talked about one plant in the Solanaceae family — the Atropa belladonna, or deadly nightshade — and today we’ll talk about its weird, lumpy cousin, the mandrake (Mandragora officinarum). Pretty much every plant in the history of the world has been thought of as magical at one point or another, but the mandrake was considered to be alive in a way most plants weren’t.
Following the lead of lots of other members of the Solanaceae family, the mandrake is a pretty unassuming plant above the ground. It’s a shrub with flowers and cherry tomato-like fruits (the common tomato is a Solanaceae too) that rarely grows more than a foot high. What makes the mandrake special is underground.
Like its cousins, the mandrake grows big, thick, hairy roots, but its claim to fame is that these bifurcated roots can look vaguely like a little man or woman, at least to the superstitious. That’s not all people thought it looked like, of course. The Bible refers to the mandrake as דודאים — literally “love plant” — but the Greeks were a little more up front in saying they thought it looked like a penis, using it in love potions for that very reason.
Over time, the legends about the mandrake grew — the root was alive and sentient, it could feel pain, etc. — until the story became that the living humanoid root would let out a scream powerful enough to kill the one unfortunate enough to disturb it. Despite the fact that no one ever actually heard a mandrake scream (it’s like the old “strawberries repel elephants” joke), people developed complicated methods for harvesting the roots, like this one from the first-century Roman historian Josephus:
A furrow must be dug around the root until its lower part is exposed, then a dog is tied to it, after which the person tying the dog must get away. The dog then endeavours to follow him, and so easily pulls up the root, but dies suddenly instead of his master. After this the root can be handled without fear.
Yeah, I mean, sure, you can always just get a new dog.
The image of the screaming humanoid root has persisted in fiction throughout the centuries, probably because it rules, but the mandrake is dangerous for reasons that have nothing to do with that. Beyond its rooty weirdness and gross stories about how it could “only grow where a hanged man’s semen falls,” it also found use in magical rituals (and murders) because of the toxic alkaloids it contains (atropine, apoatropine, scopolamine, and hyoscyamine). It was one of the most sought-after plants for these rituals because of the effects of the alkaloids, from the sensation of flying to increased libido to vivid hallucinations.
The entire plant is poisonous, from leaf to root. A large dosage will put you in a coma or kill you altogether, but small doses act as a soporific instead of a death sentence.