Thursday, April 19, 2012

Love Apples

Mandrake in Heavy Fruit

The mandrake above, which flowered in March, now bears a bumper crop of no less than twenty fruits, the largest number we’ve ever seen on a single plant here in Bonnefont garden. The fruits do not always ripen fully for us.?? Photograph by Carly Still

The mandrakes give a smell, and at our gates are all manner of pleasant fruits, new and old, which I have laid up for thee, O my beloved.

???Song of Solomon, 7:13

Mandrakes are in the nightshade family, as are tomatoes. The round fruits of Mandragora, once known as “love apples,” ripen to a pale yellow in May, and develop a bewitching fragrance. While they look much like cherry tomatoes, their scent is entirely different. Fragrances are difficult to convey, but to my nose the fruit smells like a delicately spiced custard, scented with vanilla. (The complex and subtle aroma has been analyzed, and more than fifty-five chemical constituents were identified.)

In classical antiquity, the mandrake’s reputation as an aphrodisiac and a fertility drug was allied to its forked root, thought to resemble the human form. In biblical tradition, the peculiar and intoxicating fragrance of the fruit bears erotic associations, as in the Song of Solomon. Mandrakes gathered at the time of the spring wheat harvest, when the plants are in fruit, are mentioned as an aid to conception in the story of Rachel and Leah (Genesis 30:14???16). In Islamic tradition, the fruits of the mandrake are also believed to arouse lust, and are known as “apples of the jinn” (spirits).

Mandrake fruit was employed with caution in medieval medicine, but it was to be smelled, not consumed. According to the Tacuinum Sanitatis, smelling the fruit alleviated headache and insomnia, although it could also stupefy the senses.

For more on mandrake and its properties, see last month’s post “The Mandrakes Bloom Again,” (March 23, 2012). For a discussion of mandrake fruit in biblical tradition, and a chemical analysis of its aromatic constituents, see Fleisher and Fleisher.


Arano, Luisa Cogliati. The Medieval Health Handbook: Tacuinum Sanitatis. New York: George Braziller, 1976.

Fleisher, Alexandra and Zhenia Fleisher. “The Fragrance of Biblical Mandrake.” Economic Botany 48 (3) pp. 243???251. New York: The New York Botanical Garden, 1994.

Moldenke, Harold N. and Alma L. Moldenke. Plants of the Bible. Waltham, MA: 1952. Reprinted. New York: Dover Publications, 1986.

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Comments (2)

  1. Scott Miller Says:

    After having a really edifying conversation with Dierdre Larkin about carnations this afternoon, I got to thinking about the problem of plant hybridization in the Middle Ages. As Deirdre Larkin noted, by the time carnations become popular as marginal decorations in manuscripts and in panel paintings, there is already an extraordinary variety of color and form: the blossoms are white, pink, and red. Some are parti-colored, bearing dark eyes. Both semi-double and single flowers are present, while the flowers can be borne either singly or as an inflorescence, suggesting the coexistence of several dianthus species in cultivation.

    When depicted in paintings, the carnation usually occupy a bed protected by wicker trellises (for instance, Crescenzi’s Ruralia Commoda, British Library MS 19720 fol. 214v; Osterreichische Nationalbibliothek Cod. 2617 f. 53v), or in pots (think Biblioth??que de l’Arsenal, Ms. 5072, fol. 71v). A pot of trellised carnations is present in a windowsill in the background of The Visitation by the Master of the Retablo de los Reyes Catolicos (Tuscon, University of Arizona Museum of Art). People in these images are often shown tending carnations, as in the illumination of the Commoda.

    During my conversation with Deirdre, she alluded to the cult-status of the carnation in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. But Medieval images of carnations seem to evoke a type of cult-status for the dianthus in the Late Middle Ages. Images of aristocrats tending plots seem to imply that elite medieval gardeners took personal interest in carnations, delicately watering them by hand through perforated gourds and inspecting their highly scented blossoms. These images of carnations and dianthus in protected beds or in pots (movable in the case of inclement weather) also allude to a sort of neurotic concern over the plant’s welfare, and consequently to its desirability.

    Is it possible that the conditions of Late Medieval garden culture, in which several species of a highly variable genus were highly desired by a notoriously fashion-crazed and fad-driven aristocracy, could a rapid diversification of carnation morphology in the Late Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period?

  2. bdid1dr Says:

    This may appear to you as a very weird query, but I’ll try to preface with a reference to Boenicke Manuscript 408, aka: Voynich Manuscript:

    Folios 82 and 83 have proven to be most puzzling. However, I am seeing references to Greco-Roman mythology and natural medical remedies for female fertility/childbirth problems. Of special interest to me are the pictorial elements of what appear to be large rattles.

    What I have been discovering are pictorial references to Artemis/Lesvos and Chios hot springs. Folio 83v, in particular (pictorially peculiar), appears to be an emphatically enlarged portrayal of mandrake fruit.

    I’m hoping you have the resources, and maybe a good-sized bump of curiousity, to visit Nick Pelling’s Cipher Mystery pages and add to the discussion.

    Sincerely yours,

    beady-eyed wonder(er)

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