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U.S. Forest Service

The Powerful Solanaceae: Mandrake

Image banner: ginseng roots, echinacea flowers, juniper berries, raspberry, shining willow, and Gamble oak acorn.

Mandrake, Abu’l-ruh (Old Arabic, “master of the life breath”), Satan’s apple, Manroot, Devil’s testicle, Circe’s plant (Mandragora spp.)

Once considered the most important plant of the Mediterranean region, the mystique and lore of mandrake has now all but disappeared from the modern lexicon. Mandrake’s legendary history and mythology is found among middle-eastern cuneiform writings dating back to the fourteenth century B.C. References to mandrake are also found in early Mesopotamian, Greek, Old Hebrew, Roman, Egyptian, Arabic, and other texts. During the Middle Ages mandrake was Europe’s most significant medicinal and magical plant, capable of curing practically everything, from infertility and insomnia, foretelling the future, to shielding a soldier in battle.

“Give me to drink mandragora…
That I might sleep out this great gap of time
My Antony is away.”

~From William Shakespeare’s, Antony and Cleopatra

Mandrake flowers. Star-like, violet-blue flowers arise from the center of the stemless mandrake plant growing in southern Spain. Photo: Teresa Prendusi.

Mandrake illustration in 1491 Hortus Sanitatis. Mandrake illustration in 1491 Hortus Sanitatis. Photo: National Library of Medicine.

Medieval manuscript portraying mandrake as either mandrake man or woman. The concept of “Doctrine of Signatures” is evident in this medieval manuscript where mandrake appears as either mandrake man or woman.

It is called mandrake because the large taproot can appear to look like the human form. To some, the roots resemble either the male or the female body. The medieval mind believed in the “Doctrine of Signatures,” a belief system where herbs that resembled certain parts of the body (e.g. liverwort, toothroot) are used to cure ailments of that part of the body. There are references in Genesis and the Song of Solomon where the scent of mandrake’s yellow fruits are described as having aphrodisiac properties. It is no wonder then, that mandrake came to be considered the Viagra of the middle world!

Mandrake contains the powerful tropane alkaloids scopolamine, hyoscyamine, atropine, and mandragorine, which have an intense affect on the central nervous system. It was used as a soporific (sleep inducing) and pain-killing plant for many hundreds of years. Mandrake is a powerful narcotic, emetic, sedative, and hallucinogen; its poisons can easily lead to death.

Mandragora autumnalis. Blue blossoms and flowering period of the autumn mandrake (Mandragora autumnalis) are two main differences between this species and M. officinarum. Photo: Teresa Prendusi.

Mandrake flowers. Mandrake flowers grow on short stalks originating from the center of the rosette-forming leaves. Photo: Teresa Prendusi.

Illustration of Mandragora officinalis. Illustration of Mandragora officinalis showing the diagnostic large roots, pale flowers and golden fruits from a European Herbal.

There are six species of mandrake, mostly distributed throughout southern Europe, the Middle East, and northern Africa. The most well known species are Mandragara officinarum and M. autumnalis, the former blooming in springtime and the latter during the fall. Mandrakes are stemless, perennial herbs with large taproots that can grow up to two feet in length. The flowers emerge in a cluster from the center of the plant, and depending on the species, range in color from a yellow-green to bluish-purple. The sweet-smelling fruits resemble small yellow apples.

Midieval image of a man, a dog, and a mandrake plant. The magical power of mandrake was thought to be so potent that it would scream terrifyingly as it was pulled from the earth and kill anyone within earshot.

Podophyllum peltatum. Podophyllum peltatum is also known as American mandrake or mayapple. Known for its own potent medicinal properties, it should not be confused with the European mandrake plant. Photo: Teresa Prendusi.

Did You Know?

  • In the Middle Ages, it was believed mandrake could only be uprooted in moonlight by a dog attached to the base of the plant by a rope, otherwise a person would go insane from the plant’s screams.
  • The Greek physician Dioscorides (A.D. 40-90) was the first to describe the early use of mandrake as an anesthetic used to numb and sedate patients.
  • In the Odyssey, the Greek enchantress Circe used Mandragora in a brew to turn Odysseus’ men into swine.
  • American mandrake (Podophyllum peltatum) is an entirely different plant belonging to the barberry family and should not be confused with the poisonous European mandrake which is a member of the Solanaceae family
  • An extract of American mandrake (Podophyllum peltatum) is used for treating warts. Podophyllotoxin is extracted from the roots and rhizomes of Podophyllum species.