Plant 141

Mandragora species (Solanaceae)



Mandragora officinarum has been the most (in)famous European drug plant for at least four millennia, and among its numerous common names it rejoices in being called fool's apple, Satan's testicles and dragon doll. The mandrake, which is commonly found in dry areas of the Mediterranean and the Levant, is a perennial with a long, parsnip-shaped taproot. Above ground, the distinctive dark green leaves form a flattened rosette. Purplish, bell-shaped flowers arise from the centre of the rosette in spring and ripen to ping-pong ball-sized, enigmatically-scented, yellow berries in autumn. Mandrake is considered extremely hazardous because of tropane alkaloids (scopolamine and hyoscyamine) which block acetylcholine receptors in the synapses of nerves. Low doses of mandrake produce drowniness and anaesthesia, moderate doses hallucinations, whilst high doses kill.

As with all medicinal plants, judging mandrake dose is tricky because alkaloid concentrations vary with plant part, stage of development and the environment in which the plant grows. The trick for the mandrake user is to know enough chemistry and biology to be able to judge an appropriate dose. People soon discovered mandrake's toxicity could be reduced by careful preparation using fats and oils. Tropane alkaloids are fat-soluble, hence ointments and lotions applied to the skin or mucous membranes could be used to realise the full hallucinogenic effects of tropanes.

The source of much mandrake folklore was the apparent anthropoid root, and its strong associations with the Doctorine of Signatures. Classically, mandrake was reputed to shriek when torn from the ground and kill whoever uprooted it. Incantations with swords and magic circles could protect the collector but the most common means of harvesting was to use a dog; mandrake illustrations often show the harvested root with a dog attached. Rarity and the associated stories made mandrakes desirable objects; how many of the tales were concerned with safeguarding supplies for the favoured few is unknown. However, mandrake roots with a strong human form were considered so powerful that judicial whittling could increase even a fake root's market value dramatically.

The perceived difficulties and dangers of the mandrake harvest did not prevent them being adornments to British gardens as early as the tenth century. It has been suggested that such folk tales were directly responsible for the disappearance of mandrake as a medicine, as physicians and apothecaries tried to gain respectability during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Another factor of course was that other anaesthetics were found.

Further reading

Fleisher A and Fleisher Z 1994. The fragrance of biblical mandrake. Economic Botany 48: 243-251.

Wink M and van Wyk B-E 2008. Mind-altering and poisonous plants of the world. Timber Press.

Grover N 1965. Man and plants against pain. Economic Botany 19: 99-112.

Stephen Harris