Mandrake
Mandragora officinarum



This herb has a long history in Old World magick and is a must in the witch’s garden. In the Middle East, this plant, especially its ripe fruit, is still considered to be an aphrodisiac and fertility herb on account of its shape and the story in the bible: Leah (who later had the reputation as a real babymaker) used mandrake fruits her son had harvested in their field to “buy” the sexual services of the husband she shared with Rachel, who wanted the mandrakes to increase her own fertility (Genesis 30:14-16).  In contrast, mandrake roots are sometimes connected to Mars because they have allegedly been used as an instrument of war—in battlefield medicine to deaden the pain of wounds and cause sleep, for one.  Hannibal staged a fake retreat from an African enemy, leaving wine tainted with mandrake root behind. The enemy drank it and became stupefied, allowing Hannibal to return and kill them all. It was said to protect against possession by demons, but more likely a tincture of the root was simply given to people who were schizophrenic on the principle of like driving out like.  In Germany, people washed freshly harvested mandrake roots in wine and dressed them in red and white silk clothing.  The roots were then supposed to be able to answer questions about the future.  In Germany and Austria, this root was said to make spent money return to the owner (the “female” root was used in love charms), and it was valued enough (and obviously already uncommon enough) that children inherited the root from their parent.  In England, a dried mandrake root placed on the mantel was supposed to bring prosperity to the household and keep away evil. A root under the pillow helps engender prophetic dreams, and worn as a charm, it helps create invisibility. top Mandrake Medicine. John Baptiste Porta wrote that growing this plant near a grape vine will cause grapes harvested from the vine to have some of mandrake’s ability to induce sleep, and Pliny claimed that simply smelling the leaves can cause sleepiness (I have not found this to be the case). Culpeper considered this plant to be governed by Mercury, but most others think of this as a Saturn herb (I agree).  During the Middle Ages, the root was used as an anesthetic when amputation or cautery was called for.  In the Renaissance, phony mandrake roots were crafted by growing byony roots in molds or just carving them, and I’ll bet that this is when the myth about the shrieking root causing death or insanity when it was dug up arose—this would be a very handy belief if you were selling mandrake roots, because no one would be willing to dig them up themselves. The idea that digging up mandrake caused insanity was probably related to the fact that overdose with this plant induces horrific hallucinations that last for days (and are usually not remembered afterward), a great thirst that cannot be quenched, and the inability to focus or bear light, which can persist for months.  In the words of a Renaissance herbalist: “thys herbe diverse wayes taken is very jepardus for a man and may kill hym if he eat it or drynk it out of measure and have no remedy from it.” They don’t call it one of the baneful herbs for nothing. This plant is also known as Mandragora officinalis, Atropa mandragora, and Satan’s apple. topAccording to Linnaeus, the great botanist of the 18th century, white and black mandrake are varieties of the same plant that have evolved for northern Europe (white) and southern Europe (black).  White mandrake flowers June-July and black mandrake in the fall.  The leaves of white mandrake can be one foot long and grow in a rosette (like leaf lettuce) rather than from a central stalk, like most plants.  The flowers are greenish white, white with purple, or white with blue and tend to have very short stalks. They turn into yellow fruits with an apple-like scent. The whole plant gets 4-10 in/10-25 cm tall.  The taproot fattens up and gets long quickly.  Even little plants growing in large plastic cups have nice little roots. Old plants can have roots up to 4 feet/1.2 m long, but most people can’t wait that long to harvest them and dig up the roots in the autumn of the 2nd or 3rd year. The engraving gives a good idea of how the “legs” seem to grow out of the side of the root.  top
How to grow:  I have had good luck germinating these seeds by soaking them in cold water in the fridge for two weeks.  Replace the water with new cold water daily to wash away the anti-germination chemicals that leach from the seed.  I use an old vitamin bottle for this.  At the end of two weeks, plant in Jiffy-7 pellets with kelp solution, as described in general growing tips.  Another method is to plant them as usual in a Jiffy-7 soaked in kelp solution and then put the Jiffy-7s seeds and all in the fridge for 4-6 weeks, covered lightly with the kind of plastic bag groceries come in.  The fridge should be on the cold side, 41 F, or put them in the bottom toward the back. Then take them out to germinate.  The idea is to imitate snowmelt.  I have gotten them to germinate both ways, but the cold water method uses less fridge room.  Or sow on Winter Solstice (see the Solstice Sowing page). top
They are slow to come up (some sources advise waiting a year before tossing them), but they will. Make sure they stay moist but not sopping and do not put them in direct sunlight—more than any other plant I have grown, mandrakes dislike sun. They do not come up all at once, like the seeds of bedding plants do. These are seeds of wild plants, so their germination is staggered. Plant in full shade in rich soil. Add peat to the soil to make it more acidic.  If planting in a pot, make your own potting soil from 2 parts peat, 2 parts sand, and 1 part loam. Although the babies really seek out the sun, keep the plants in shade with perhaps morning sun, depending on how warm your climate is. Fertilize regularly.  A foliar spray of a solution of liquid kelp and fish meal is good, and a fertilizer for roots really makes a huge difference (I tried Rootone this year). They don’t like being wet, but they will become dormant if they don’t get enough water (or if it’s too hot or too cold or not the right time of year—this is a very persnickety plant). Check the undersides of the leaves for aphids regularly, and use Safer Insecticidal Soap to get rid of them if they turn up.  top
Once you get a mandrake going, you can propagate it by dividing its roots in the late autumn. It’s winter hardy only in zones 8-11, the Deep South and the Northwest.  Farther north, try growing on the south side of the house against the wall and either put them in a cold frame in the winter or keep them in a pot and take them into the garage or basement for the winter (don’t water while the plant is dormant). This plant needs plenty of pot length to make a good root. Otherwise, the root will twist all around upon itself and the plant will go dormant. You can plant several together in a large pot, so that they have plenty of room to grow down. The root can get over four feet long.  top
The plant seems to sense when the root is getting near the bottom of the pot and quits growing; the leaves become weak and fall off. I had some in a very large pot, but they still stopped growing at a certain point. When I dug them up, I found that the end of the root was an extremely long thread that had obviously hit the bottom. Cramped roots become spirals. Planting in lengths of sewer pipes or garbage cans with holes in the bottom might be a way to remedy this. Planting in the ground is better if you have good soil, but it is very difficult to dig up the root without breaking it. Even turning the soil out of a pot all in one piece and gently pushing away the dirt resulted in a broken root or two. The plant probably uses this brittle root strategy to propagate itself, since pieces of root will make a new plant (this usually takes 3-4 months, and I have some roots in the ground that are a year old that are not dead but that haven’t produced any top growth either). One possibility is to dig a good deep hole for your plant and fill it with a fine soil mix that will make digging up easier. Then water very heavily just before you dig up the root. This will allow it to come free more easily. I have done this with other plants and will try it with mandrake next season. top
After one season of growth, you get a nice root about finger-length, a good size for work. Not all roots are forked, but most are. It is very nice to do the traditional unearthing: dig up the root using a piece of antler or horn at midnight, smudge it, and anoint it with a few drops of wine, then wrap it in silk. You can even rebury it then, or you can keep them fresh in the fridge wrapped in a slightly dampened paper towel inside an open baggie. Or you can put them in a jar of alcohol to preserve them, or dry them in a dehydrator if they are not too thick (thick roots will rot before they dry all the way through). Don’t put them in the microwave to dry, like you can with flowers; they will get ruined. They lose a substantial amount of weight and volume being dried. 
To get fruits, the plant has to be able to go through the winter without going dormant, a tough call in the US—possible in the Pacific Northwest or by using grow lights to keep them going through the winter in more hostile climes. Without flowers, you won’t get fruits. If you do get fruits, let them ripen fully before harvesting to get the best seeds. top 
You can also cut the roots and plant them to make more plants for the following year. In fall, cut the root into 1-2 inch long pieces. On each piece, cut the upward part straight across, and cut the lower part on an angle. Dip in rooting hormone and plant in soil in a sheltered spot or in a pot. Cover with sand. These will grow into new plants the following spring.