The Powerful Solanaceae: Mandrake
Mandrake, Abu’l-ruh (Old Arabic, “master of the life breath”), Satan’s apple, Manroot, Devil’s testicle, Circe’s plant (Mandragora spp.)
Once considered the most important plant of the Mediterranean region, the mystique and lore of mandrake has now all but disappeared from the modern lexicon. Mandrake’s legendary history and mythology is found among middle-eastern cuneiform writings dating back to the fourteenth century B.C. References to mandrake are also found in early Mesopotamian, Greek, Old Hebrew, Roman, Egyptian, Arabic, and other texts. During the Middle Ages mandrake was Europe’s most significant medicinal and magical plant, capable of curing practically everything, from infertility and insomnia, foretelling the future, to shielding a soldier in battle.
“Give me to drink mandragora…
That I might sleep out this great gap of time
My Antony is away.”
~From William Shakespeare’s, Antony and Cleopatra
It is called mandrake because the large taproot can appear to look like the human form. To some, the roots resemble either the male or the female body. The medieval mind believed in the “Doctrine of Signatures,” a belief system where herbs that resembled certain parts of the body (e.g. liverwort, toothroot) are used to cure ailments of that part of the body. There are references in Genesis and the Song of Solomon where the scent of mandrake’s yellow fruits are described as having aphrodisiac properties. It is no wonder then, that mandrake came to be considered the Viagra of the middle world!
Mandrake contains the powerful tropane alkaloids scopolamine, hyoscyamine, atropine, and mandragorine, which have an intense affect on the central nervous system. It was used as a soporific (sleep inducing) and pain-killing plant for many hundreds of years. Mandrake is a powerful narcotic, emetic, sedative, and hallucinogen; its poisons can easily lead to death.
There are six species of mandrake, mostly distributed throughout southern Europe, the Middle East, and northern Africa. The most well known species are Mandragara officinarum and M. autumnalis, the former blooming in springtime and the latter during the fall. Mandrakes are stemless, perennial herbs with large taproots that can grow up to two feet in length. The flowers emerge in a cluster from the center of the plant, and depending on the species, range in color from a yellow-green to bluish-purple. The sweet-smelling fruits resemble small yellow apples.
Did You Know?
- In the Middle Ages, it was believed mandrake could only be uprooted in moonlight by a dog attached to the base of the plant by a rope, otherwise a person would go insane from the plant’s screams.
- The Greek physician Dioscorides (A.D. 40-90) was the first to describe the early use of mandrake as an anesthetic used to numb and sedate patients.
- In the Odyssey, the Greek enchantress Circe used Mandragora in a brew to turn Odysseus’ men into swine.
- American mandrake (Podophyllum peltatum) is an entirely different plant belonging to the barberry family and should not be confused with the poisonous European mandrake which is a member of the Solanaceae family
- An extract of American mandrake (Podophyllum peltatum) is used for treating warts. Podophyllotoxin is extracted from the roots and rhizomes of Podophyllum species.