The mandrake, credited with both medicinal and magical powers over the course of many centuries, has accumulated more lore than any other plant in the Western tradition. Above: One of a colony of five spring-blooming mandrakes in Bonnefont garden. In March, this famous member of the nightshade family produces tight clusters of short-stemmed bell-shaped flowers.
Mandrake (mandragora) is hot and a little bit watery. It grew from the same earth which formed Adam, and resembles the human a bit. Because of its similarity to the human, the influence of the devil appears in it and stays with it, more than with other plants. Thus a person’s good or bad desires are accomplished by means of it, just as happened formerly with idols he made. When mandrake is dug from the earth, it should be placed in a spring immediately, for a day and a night, so that every evil and contrary humor is expelled from it, and it has no more power for magic or phantasms.
—Hildegard of Bingen, Physica (translated by Patricia Throop)
The spring-blooming mandrake (Mandragora officinarum), the most storied of all the medieval species grown in Bonnefont garden, flowers for us in mid-March. The bee-pollinated blossoms open wide to the sun by mid-morning, but very few bees are abroad so early in the year, and cross-pollination by hand, with a fine brush, helps to ensure a good crop of round, green fruits (see image). The fruits ripen to yellow in late spring and develop a distinctive fragrance and a sweetish taste.
A native of southern Europe and the Levant, mandrake is found in open woodland, deserted fields, and stony places. Mandrakes are not widely cultivated, but they can be grown from seed in deep soil, where their large, forked taproots can be accommodated. They don’t over-winter well in wet earth, and are prone to rot. The leaves, arranged in a rosette, are small and tightly crinkled early in the season, but lengthen to a foot or more in the course of the spring, and seedlings should be set out at least two feet apart. (Our colony of five well-established mandrakes are now far too close to one another, and will have to be transplanted—a daunting enterprise.)
Although no use or significance attaches to the flowers, the fruit, the famously forked root, and even the leaves of this narcotic member of the nightshade family were used medicinally for millennia. Some ancient and medieval authorities make a distinction between male and female mandrakes, and it isn’t always clear whether Mandragora officinarum or the closely related fall-blooming species, Mandragora autumnalis, (also grown at The Cloisters) is under discussion.
The ancients exploited the narcotic properties of the mandrake as an anodyne, a sedative, and a soporific, and employed it against melancholy, mania, and convulsion. The Roman natural historian Pliny records both the use of mandrake as a surgical anesthetic (a piece of root was given to the patient to chew), and the ritual gathering of the plant: the collector drew concentric rings around the mandrake with a sword that was then used to dig the root. The juice of the root bark was expressed or infused for medicinal purposes. Dioscorides prescribed a measure of mandrake juice mixed with wine as an anesthetic in surgery and cautery, a practice reiterated by Bartholomaeus Anglicus. The potentially fatal effects of an overdose were widely acknowledged. For more on the poisonous alkaloids contained in mandrake, see “The Nightshades” (November 7, 2008).
Magical powers were ascribed to mandrake from very early times. The semblance of the root to a human form, greatly exaggerated in medieval representations, was noted by both the Greeks and Romans, and contributed to mandrake’s reputation as an aphrodisiac and an aid to conception. In a scornful dismissal of mandrake’s reputed powers, the sixteenth-century herbalist John Gerard disavows this fanciful resemblance and provides a succinct summary of the considerable body of legendary attributes still current in his day. The most notorious element of mandrake lore was the belief that the plant uttered a shriek, fatal to the hearer, on being torn from the earth. The prescribed method for harvesting the root—in which a dog tied to the mandrake pulls the plant from the ground—is frequently depicted in ancient and medieval herbals. (For a fascinating scholarly investigation of the history of this representation and the evolution of mandrake lore, see “The Mandrake Plant and Its Legend: A New Perspective,” by Anne Van Arsdall, Helmut W. Klug, and Paul Blanz.)
I’ve dug up a mandrake with some effort but no ill effects, as documented in a scene from the movie Hidden Treasures.
Anderson, Frank J., ed. “Herbals through 1500,” The Illustrated Bartsch, Vol. 90. New York: Abaris, 1984.
Grieve, Maude. A Modern Herbal. 1931. Reprint: New York: Dover Publications.
Gunther, Robert T., ed. The Greek Herbal of Dioscorides, translated by John Goodyer 1655. 1934. Reprint: New York: Hafner Publishing, 1968.
Moldenke, Harold N. and Alma L. Moldenke. Plants of the Bible. Waltham, MA: 1952. Reprinted. New York: Dover Publications, 1986.
Simoon, Frederick. Plants of Life, Plants of Death. University of Wisconsin Press. Madison: 1998.
Stannard, Jerry. Pristina Medicamenta: Ancient and Medieval Medical Botany. Ed. Katherine Stannard and Richard Kay. Brookfield, VT: Ashgate, 1999.
Throop, Priscilla, transl. Hildegard von Bingen’s Physica: The Complete English Translation of Her Classic Work on Health and Healing. Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press, 1998.