Herb of the Day
Botanical: Atropa mandragora
Family: N.O. Solanaceae
—Synonyms—Mandragora. Satan’s Apple.
—Habitat—The Mandrake, the object of so many strange superstitions, is a native of Southern Europe and the Levant, but will grow here in gardens if given a warm situation, though otherwise it may not survive severe winters. It was cultivated in England in 1562 by Turner, the author of the
The name Mandragora is derived from two Greek words implying ‘hurtful to cattle. ‘ The Arabs call it ‘Satan’s apple.’
—Description—It has a large, brown root, somewhat like a parsnip, running 3 or 4 feet deep into the ground, sometimes single and sometimes divided into two or three branches. Immediately from the crown of the root arise several large, dark-green leaves, which at first stand erect, but when grown to full size a foot or more in length and 4 or 5 inches in width – spread open and lie upon the ground. They are sharp pointed at the apex and of a foetid odour. From among these leaves spring the flowers, each on a separate foot-stalk, 3 or 4 inches high. They are somewhat of the shape and size of a primrose, the corolla bell-shaped, cut into five spreading segments, of a whitish colour, somewhat tinged with purple. They are succeeded by a smooth, round fruit, about as large as a small apple, of a deep yellow colour when ripe, full of pulp and with a strong, apple-like scent.
—Medicinal Action and Uses—The leaves are quite harmless and cooling, and have been used for ointments and other external application. Boiled in milk and used as a poultice, they were employed by Boerhaave as an application to indolent ulcers.
The fresh root operates very powerfully as an emetic and purgative. The dried bark of the root was used also as a rough emetic.
Mandrake was much used by the Ancients, who considered it an anodyne and soporific. In large doses it is said to excite delirium and madness. They used it for procuring rest and sleep in continued pain, also in melancholy, convulsions, rheumatic pains and scrofulous tumours. They mostly employed the bark of the root, either expressing the juice or infusing it in wine or water. The root finely scraped into a pulp and mixed with brandy was said to be efficacious in chronic rheumatism.
Mandrake was used in Pliny’s days as an anaesthetic for operations, a piece of the root being given to the patient to chew before undergoing the operation. In small doses it was employed by the Ancients in maniacal cases.
A tincture is used in homoeopathy to-day, made from the fresh plant.
- Among the old Anglo-Saxon herbals both Mandrake and periwinkle are endowed with mysterious powers against demoniacal possession. At the end of a description of the Mandrake in the Herbarium of Apuleius there is this prescription:
‘For witlessness, that is devil sickness or demoniacal possession, take from the body of this said wort mandrake by the weight of three pennies, administer to drink in warm water as he may find most convenient – soon he will be healed.’Bartholomew gives the old Mandrake legend in full, though he adds: ‘It is so feynd of churles others of wytches.’ He also refers to its use as an anaesthetic:’the rind thereof medled with wine . . . gene to them to drink that shall be cut in their body, for they should slepe and not fele the sore knitting.’
Bartholomew gives two other beliefs about the Mandrake which are not found in any other English Herbal – namely, that while uprooting it the digger must beware of contrary winds, and that he must go on digging for it uptil sunset.
In the Grete Herball (printed by Peter Treveris in 1526) we find the first avowal of disbelief in the supposed powers of the Mandrake. Gerard also pours scorn on the Mandrake legend.
‘There have been,’ he says, ‘many ridiculous tales brought up of this plant, whether of old wives or runnegate surgeons or phisick mongers, I know not, all which dreames and old wives tales you shall from henceforth cast out your bookes of memorie.’
Parkinson says that if ivory is boiled with Mandrake root for six hours, the ivory will become so soft ‘that it will take what form or impression you will give it.’
Josephus says that the Mandrake – which he calls Baaras – has but one virtue, that of expelling demons from sick persons, as the demons cannot bear either its smell or its presence. He even relates that it was certain death to touch this plant, except under certain circumstances which he details. (Wars of the Jews, book vii, cap. vi.)
- The roots of the Mandrake are very nearly allied to Belladonna, both in external appearance and in structure. The plant is by modern botanists assigned to the same genus, though formerly was known as Mandragora officinalis, with varieties M. vernalis and M. autumnalis. According to Southall (Organic Materia Medica, 8th edition, revised by Ernest Mann, 1915), the root:
- ‘contains a mydriatic alkaloid, Mandragorine (Cl7H27O3N), which in spite of the name and formula which have been assigned to it, is probably identical with atropine or hyoscyamine.’
The roots of Mandrake were supposed to bear a resemblance to the human form, on account of their habit of forking into two and shooting on each side. 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. As an amulet, it was once placed on mantelpieces to avert misfortune and to bringprosperity and happiness to the house. Bryony roots were often cut into fancy shapes and passed off as Mandrake, being even trained to grow in moulds till they assumed the desired forms. In Henry VIII’s time quaint little images made from Bryony roots, cut into the figure of a man, with grains of millet inserted into the face as eyes, fetched high prices. They were known as puppettes or mammettes, and were accredited with magical powers. Italian ladies were known to pay as much as thirty golden ducats for similar artificial Mandrakes.
- Turner alludes to these ‘puppettes and mammettes,’ and says, ‘they are so trimmed of crafty thieves to mock the poor people withal and to rob them both of their wit and their money.’ But he adds:
- ‘Of the apples of mandrake, if a man smell of them they will make him sleep and also if they be eaten. But they that smell to muche of the apples become dumb . . . this herb diverse ways taken is very jeopardous for a man and may kill hym if he eat it or drink it out of measure and have no remedy from it…. If mandragora be taken out of measure, by and by sleep ensued and a great lousing of the strengthen with a forgetfulness.’
The plant was fabled to grow under the gallows of murderers, and it was believed to be death to dig up the root, which was said to utter a shriek and terrible groans on being dug up, which none might hear and live. It was held, therefore, that he who would take up a plant of Mandrake should tie a dog to it for that purpose, who drawing it out would certainly perish, as the man would have done, had he attempted to dig it up in the ordinary manner.
There are many allusions to the Mandrake in ancient writers. From the earliest times a notion prevailed in the East that the Mandrake will remove sterility, and there is a reference to this belief in Genesis xxx. 14.
—Cultivation—Mandrake can be propagated by seeds, sown upon a bed of light earth, soon after they are ripe, when they are more sure to come up than if the sowing is left to 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.
Culpepper tells us the Mandrake is governed by Mercury. The fruit has been accounted poisonous, but without cause…. The root formerly was supposed to have the human form, but it really resembles a carrot or parsnip.