Thursday, February 3, 2011

Mandragora Officinarum - Mandrake

The Mandrake, Mandragora officinarum, is a plant called by the Arabs luffâh, or beid el-jinn ("djinn's eggs").  Mandrake is the common name for members of the plant genus Mandragora belonging to the nightshades family (Solanaceae).

Mandrake contains deliriant hallucinogenic tropane alkaloids such as atropine, scopolamine, apoatropine, and hyoscyamine.  The roots sometimes bifurcate, causing them to resemble human figures. Their roots have long been used in magic rituals, and today are valued by members of neopagan religions such as Wicca and Germanic revivalism religions such as Odinism.

The roots of Mandrake were supposed to bear a resemblance to the human form, on account of their habit of forking into two shoots which form a rough figure of a human. In the old Herbals we find them frequently figured as a male with a long beard, and a female with a very bushy head of hair. Many weird superstitions collected round the Mandrake root.

It was common belief in some countries that mandrake would only grow where the semen of a hanged murderer had dripped on to the ground.  And it was believed to cause death to whoever dug it up, as the plant would let out a shriek upon being dug up, which none might hear and live. Therefore if you would dig up a Mandrake you should either do it from a distance using string, or tie the string to your dog and let him pull it up.  Of course, then the dog would die from the terrible scream from the plant. 

In J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, the author makes use of the legend of the mandrake's scream, and anyone tending mandrakes wears earmuffs to dull the sound.

As an amulet, it was once placed on mantel to bring luck and happiness. Bryony roots were often cut into fancy shapes and passed off as Mandrake. Small images made from Bryony roots, cut to look like the figure of a man, with millet seed inserted into the face for eyes, were sold to the foolish and uneducated. They were known as puppettes and were credited with magical powers. Italian ladies were known to pay as much as thirty golden ducats for these artificial Mandrake amulets.

Mandrake has a long history of medicinal use, though superstition has played a large part in the uses it has been applied to. It is rarely prescribed in modern herbalism, though it contains hyoscine which is the standard pre-operative medication given to soothe patients and reduce bronchial secretions. It is also used to treat travel sickness.  The leaves are quite harmless and cooling, and have been used for ointments and other external application.

The fresh or dried root contains highly poisonous alkaloids and is hallucinogenic and narcotic. In sufficient quantities it induces a state of oblivion and was used as an anaesthetic for operations in early surgery. It was much used in the past for its anodyne and soporific properties. In the past, juice from the finely grated root was applied externally to relieve rheumatic pains. It was also used internally to treat melancholy, convulsions and mania. When taken internally in large doses, however, it is said to excite delirium and madness.

Mandrake can be propagated by seeds, sown upon a bed of light earth, soon after they are ripe in the fall. This way they are more apt to germinate than if sown in the spring.  When the plants come up in the spring, they must be kept well watered through the summer and kept free from weeds. At the end of August they should be taken up carefully and transplanted where they are to remain. The soil should be light and deep, as the roots run far down - if too wet, they will rot in winter, if too near chalk or gravel, they will make little progress. Where the soil is good and they are not disturbed, these plants will grow to a large size in a few years, and will produce great quantities of flowers and fruit.

It is in leaf from March to July, in flower from March to April, and the seeds ripen from July to August. The flowers are hermaphrodite (have both male and female organs) and are pollinated by Insects. The plant requires well-drained soils that are acidic or neutral; it prefers light (sandy) and medium (loamy) ones. It can grow in semi-shade (light woodland) or no shade.

It has a large brown root, similar to the parsnip, which can run 3 feet deep, sometimes divided into two or more branches. Broad, dark green leaves rise from the crown of the root which at first stand erect, but then spread open and lie upon the ground as they grow larger. From amid the leaves flowers shoot up, each on a separate stalk, about 4 inches high. They are small and bell-shaped, cut into five spreading segments, whitish in color and tinged with purple. Their fruit is smooth and round, resembling a small apple. They are yellow when ripe and have a strong, apple-like scent, hense the nickname "Satan's Apple."

Well, it looks like mandrake is best sown in the fall, so I will probably get some seeds and try to start some seedlings in the spring and hold off on some for an October start. Either that, or try to find someone selling young plants.  I'll let you know how that goes.

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