Mandragora officinarum | ‘Autumn Mandrake’, ‘Mandrake’, ‘Mediterranean Mandrake’ | Seeds
Mandragora officinarum, or ‘Mandrake’, is a perennial herbaceous plant which forms deceptively lovely bell-shaped flowers, orange-yellow berries and basal rosettes of leaves growing from thick and often branched upright roots. The type species of the (incredibly taxonomically confused) Mandragora genus, officinarum occurs naturally around the Mediterranean region, specifically in parts of Algeria, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, North Africa, Palestine, Portugal, Spain, Syria, Tunisia, Turkey and Yugoslavia.
Officinarum‘s leaves are quite variable in shape and size, although are generally either elliptical or obovate (widening towards their ends), reaching up to around of forty-five centimetres in length. Greenish-white to pale blue to violet-coloured flowers appear anywhere from September to April, with variably-sized ellipsoid-shaped berries forming between November to June. The fruit turns glossy in texture when ripe and contains yellow to light brown seeds between two and a half and six millimetres long.
Its preferred altitude range is from sea level to approximately one thousand two hundred metres, where it grows in open habitats including light woodland and disturbed sites, for example on fallow land, olive groves, railway embankments and ruins.
The mandrake’s root often resembles the human form and this, combined with the plant’s production of various deliriant tropane alkaloids, has caused the genus to become associated with a variety of historical superstitious practices. For example, amulets believed to bring good fortune and the like were manufactured from the various parts of the plant, and they have long been made use of as part of various ritual practices (including, occasionally, by present-day Odinists and Wiccans). It’s worth nothing, however, that not all the so-called “mandrakes” used ritually are in fact the true Mandragora officinarum.
Perhaps the best-known mandrake-related superstition is that it would scream when pulled from the ground, killing anyone within range of the sound and condemning them to eternal damnation… Consequently, anybody finding themselves needing to uproot the species should use the old folk method of tying the roots to an animal and then using the latter to pull it from the earth!
Despite their terrifying reputation, the plants of the Mandrake complex also have a long history of medicinal use, although are not really a part of the modern herbal pharmacopeia. Previously, they’ve been used internally for purposes including anaesthesia (as they induce a state of unconsciousness when applied in sufficient quantities) and to treat convulsions, mania and melancholy, and externally in an attempt to relieve rheumatic pains.
The reason Mandrakes were used in folk medicine became apparent to modern-day medical science when researchers began to identify the highly biologically active alkaloids present in both the fresh plant and dried root material. Over eighty substances have been identified as being present in Mandragora, notably the tropanes atropine, belladonnine, hyoscyamine and scopolamine (aka hyoscine), from which various medically-useful drugs have since been brought to market.
Via their anticholinergic, hallucinogenic and hypnotic effects, it’s these alkaloids that make the plants so poisonous – especially the leaves and the root), with a range of severely adverse effects such as asphyxiation, blurred vision, diarrhoea, difficulty urinating, dizziness, hallucinations, headache, tachycardia and vomiting. Sounds pleasant. One to grow for its looks rather than eating, we think!
All the seed sold by Arkham’s Botanical was freshly and ethically sourced in 2018