Sunday, 15 January 2012

It's a boy!

A friend in Ireland, who wishes to remain anonymous, has sent me a picture of this indubitably 'male' mandrake root lifted from his garden. In the past such strategically forked roots were particularly valued for their supposedly superior medical qualities, and it seems as if there was a quite an industry in the middle ages, fabricating little homunculi that were said to be mandrakes, complete with faces, hair and genitalia. It's now known that mandrakes (Mandragora autumnalis or M. officinarum), like many members of the Solanaceae, contain a diversity of potentially hallucinogenic alkaloids, which could have given an interesting experience in the hands of a competent herbalist - or been fatal in other cases.

No doubt to protect the trade, the ancient herbalists invented myths about the origins of the roots, and fabulous methods for harvesting them, needed because of their potency. The most famous is that when dug the mandrake shrieks, with fatal effect to all who hear it: in consequence it was necessary to very cautiously excavate the root and for the final tug tie it to a dog, while retreating out of earshot. As the dog responds to a call it yanks out the root, but in so doing hears the scream and dies. This legend dates back to classical times and is charmingly illustrated in this illustration in  a Pflanzenbuch of about 1500, by an anonymous herbalist from northern Italy, now kept in Munich (from Blunt & Raphael, 1979, The Illustrated Herbal). I've only dug up one mandrake and was really quite disappointed when it didn't scream, but it re-established, which was more important.



  1. Dear John. A very interesting story. Thank you!
    According to your previous photo, Hamamelis, I have one myself, it´s more than 40 years old, and the perfumed smell of the flavours, can really knock you off your shoes. Lovely. It´s a ´show-stopper´ so to speak, as people passing by my house, stop, stare and enjoy it. And I am, ofcourse very pleased with it. The very first sign of spring in my garden.
    Best regards, Fie.

  2. I tried ordering a mandrake root from sacred succulents, but it got caught up in the mail and showed up late, almost rotted. :(

    Thanks for the lore.


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