Beware the Mandrake!

5 Apr

In honor of Amy Stewart – author of “Wicked Plants” – and her free talk at the nursery on Sunday, April 10 at 11 am – we present you with the most terrifying plant in our arsenal: Mandragora.

Have you ever played Bloody Mary? I don’t mean the drink – I mean the “game” where you attempt to conjure up a ghost in the bathroom mirror. Turn around three times and say her name (BloodyMaryBloodyMaryBloodyMary) just to see if she appears? Well, Bloody Mary was certainly a well-worn part of my late-night slumber party experience as a kid and the result was consistently the same – we were never able to conjure the ghost, but we were certainly able to scare ourselves silly. For the first time in my adult life I’ve found myself in a similar predicament and this time, it’s with a plant.

A plant that can kill you. With its screams.

Mandragora autumnalis double page

Mandragora autumnalis watercolor by Caudetano on Flickr

From the ground up, a mandrake is a most unassuming plant. It makes a big, leafy green rosette with pretty purple flowers nestled close at the center. It’s what’s underground that’s so sought after and so perturbing. The roots, which can get a few feet long, are like a carrot grown in rocky soil – twisted and thick, and bear some resemblance to a wrinkled little man. The plant is used in magic and in ritual, and there are certain things you must do in order to harvest it correctly. During the Middle Ages, often the harvester would tie a dog to the plant and then leave and go very very far away, so that when the dog pulled it free and the plant’s deadly screams (YES SCREAMS) hit the air, the dog would be the only victim. Being a dog owner and animal lover, I sort of have a problem with this method, but I am also hoping that even if it’s true that people did this, no dogs were harmed in the process.

Mandragora - Male and Female

Regardless, the screaming has me nervous. I’m sort of relieved that my handling of the plant has been in its care and not in its transplanting. I did warn Jen, who transplanted them when it came time, of the risks involved. Jen’s okay, by the way. She transplanted the Mandrakes a few months ago and I just saw her today. She reports no ill effects.

Mandragora autumnalis blooming in the nursery

The humanoid appearance of the plant is part of what makes it so feared, but the contents of the plant are a different kind of scary – all parts are poisonous and contain potent compounds with hallucinogenic and depressive effects. This should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyways – our interest in the plant is as curiosity, not medicine. Ingesting any part of a plant as poisonous as this one is a dangerous and stupid idea. But as plant geeks? You bet we’re hooked. This is one symbolically heavy plant!

Mandrakes, male and female, from the Neapolitanus Dioscurides manuscript, Biblioteca Nazionale di Napoli, early seventh century.

So no one’s died yet – no dogs, no coworkers and not me, as I sit here writing this in the office, with a great distance between me and the spooky roots.

We have just a few plants for those brave enough to keep their company. They’re growing innocently in clay pots in the back of the nursery, and I am watching them carefully. Very, very carefully. The species we’re growing isn’t the infamous Mandragora officinarum, either. It’s the rare and endangered Mandragora turcomanica from Iran – READ ALL ABOUT IT HERE.

Perhaps we’ve been safe because we’re not growing THE Mandrake, we’re just growing A mandrake, but I’m going to guess that it might also be because we’re giving this fascinating plant the respect and reverence it deserves. If you’re keen on learning more about the mandrake and other plants with seriously wicked potential, then you MUST read Amy Stewart’s book Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln’s Mother and other Botanical Atrocities. And get thee to the nursery this weekend! Amy’s giving a talk on Sunday, April 10 at 11 am and it’s sure to be spooky stuff.

WATCH Amy’s amusingly sinister video for “Wicked Plants.”

Claire Woods

4 Responses to “Beware the Mandrake!”

  1. Kathryn/ April 5, 2011 at 4:27 pm #

    Wow! Thanks for the warning! I’m already up to my knees in arum italicum, pulling it up by the buckets full, so won’t be getting any of your plant soon! Enough poison already!

  2. chiotsrun April 6, 2011 at 12:22 pm #

    Interesting, I’ve also heard that mandrakes can make barren women conceive and least that was the superstition many many years ago.

  3. Alex April 24, 2011 at 7:17 pm #

    I stumbled on your site while searching for mandrake stuff .Thanks for sharing that piece of writing keep up the good work.Very impressed by the amount of plants you grow
    Take a look at the website there is a little more information on it about the mandrake


  1. Mandrake | Find Me A Cure - June 6, 2014

    […] Beware the Mandrake! […]

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