I’ve always been interested in folk lore. The tales associated with the root of the Mandrake (Mandragora officinarum) are pretty lurid. It is said that the gnarly, twisted roots are shaped like humans and that they come in male and female forms, presumably mating under the ground to propagate. It was feared for its horrible shriek when pulled from the ground because if heard, it could cause madness or even death. A safe way to harvest the root, they said, was to loosen the soil around the root, tie a dog to it and run. When the dog goes to follow, it will pull out the root. Oh, and you have to do it at night. Too bad for Fido, but anything for quality medications. Folks of yore used mandrake root as a fertility herb, an aphrodisiac, a magical totem and as a medicinal to relieve pain or promote sleep. Carrying around a piece mandrake root and displaying it in your home would protect you from evil, for sure. According to an 11th-century Anglo-Saxon manuscript, the mandrake also shined at night like a lamp, and would flee from “an unclean man”. So I guess even mandrakes had standards!
Modern folk lore includes mandrake in the Harry Potter books and movies as one of Professor Sprout’s magical plants. And who can forget Mandrake the Magician of cartoon fame? To this day the root is sought by herbalists, pharmaceutical developers and practitioners of magic.
It is a member of the nightshade family and is native to southern and central Europe as well regions adjacent to the Mediterranean Sea. The leaves are harmless and cooling when used as a poultice, and some consider the fruits to also be harmless and tasty to boot, but the root is a low-dose botanical that should be approached with caution. The fruit, commonly called apples, are lemon-yellow and ovate. Its flowers are a beautiful purple.
Do not confuse the Old World mandrake with the American mandrake or, as it is commonly known, May Apple (Podophyllum peltatum). May Apple roots are a powerful cathartic poison and was used by Native Americans as a method of suicide. The plants are unmistakably different. See botanical drawings below.