There mandrake, also known as mandrake, identifies a genus of plants of the family of Solanaceae. The different species belonging to this genus are classified as poisonous. There are also some testifying to this news cases.
But this plant, it must be said, has been known since ancient times. Popular imagination has always indulged itself on it and an aura of mystery has been created all around it that has made superstition take root.
The goal of this article is to raise awareness of the mandrake, describing its botanical characteristics and the traits of the legend born of popular tradition.
How to recognize the mandrake
The genre Mandrake includes three main species. Of these, two, the Mandrake vernalis and the Mandragora autumnalis, are of Mediterranean origin and very widespread on our continent. The third, the Mandrake caulescens Clarke, is instead native to the Himalayas.
This plant is a perennial that reproduces by means of buds placed at ground level. The leaves are instead arranged in a basal rosette, and as you can see from the photo, they are very similar to those of spinach.
The mandragora autumnalis (the most widespread species in our territory) produces a berry as a fruit included in the glass. This has an ellipsoid or subspherical shape, is reddish or yellow-orange in color, and becomes dark or blackish when dry.
The flowers, in this species, are purple, very showy.
However, what characterizes the mandrake most of all, and from which myths and legends derive, is its root system. The plant, in fact, is equipped with a voluminous underground apparatus, branched and twisted, in ways so different that it can acquire an anthropomorphic aspect, that is, reminiscent of the human figure.
Contents and toxicity of the mandrake
Mandrake is a plant that has been known since biblical times. For a long time it was famous in ancient medicine. Its medicinal properties are to be attributed to alkaloids, contained, in particular, in the underground organs. One of these is the mandrake, that is an alkaloid similar toatropine, endowed with mydriatic action, and from which it was later possible to isolate l-josciamina, l-scopolamine, pseudo-josciamina.
The Mandrake, therefore, has the same alkaloid content as theAtropa belladonna, a poisonous plant that we have already got to know.
If in ancient times it was used for medicinal purposes, or in religious rituals for its hallucinogenic properties, today it is considered a poisonous plant to stay away from.
Let's now see the salient features of the history of the mandrake and the legends built around it.
History and curiosities about the mandrake
Among the cultures of the Mediterranean basin, the mandrake has a long tradition. It is used as a magical, aphrodisiac, hallucinogenic and medicinal plant.
This plant is one of the most renowned of medieval European witchcraft, but its virtues have been known since the second millennium BC.
The knowledge of the mandrake is in fact testified by Egyptian archaeological finds starting from the fourteenth century BC. (during the 5th Dynasty). Furthermore, images of the plant have been identified in ancient bas-reliefs in Boghaz-keui.
Together with the water lily and the opium poppy, also plants with psychoactive properties, it was used to make ointments. These were capable of inducing hypnotic, trance and ecstatic states.
It was also known also by the ancient Germans, the Greeks and the Romans.
Ancient depiction of mandrake
The mandrake has also been identified with the enigmatic moly grass by Homer. In the story, inserted in the tenth book of the Odyssey, it is the god Hermes, the "messenger of the gods", who gives the magical herb to Ulysses. The goal was to use it as a protection against the filter of the sorceress Circe, capable of transforming men into pigs. In the story, the moly herb performs an action opposite to that of the classic magical herbs: it avoids transformation into an animal, rather than inducing it.
The mandrake is also known in Jewish culture and is present in the Old Testament. It is mentioned in a story with rather “pagan” connotations, in which the plant is used as a medium of exchange for its aphrodisiac and fertilizing properties. In fact, this plant has been considered, almost everywhere, as a portentous aphrodisiac. Not surprisingly, Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of Love, had the nickname of Mandragoritis.
The large root and fruit were the parts of the plant used for medicinal and psychoactive effects. Since ancient times, the shape of the root has been used to recognize the features of a man or a woman. This anthropomorphic identification has been a source of inspiration in mythology, beliefs and rituals related to this plant.
In various medieval sources, the belief is reported that, when a condemned man is hanged, when he dies, his seminal fluid or urine, falling to the ground, gives rise to the mandrake. This theme is usually followed by the description of the procedure for harvesting the plant. It was believed, in fact, that anyone who tried to eradicate it, but also anyone who accidentally stumbled on it or passed too close to it, would die.
The collection was based on the sacrifice of a dog, usually black. The poor animal was tied by the tail or the neck to the root of the plant. When, running in the opposite direction to the root, he uprooted it, the animal would die.
This is a widespread tale in the Germanic countries, in Iceland, in France and elsewhere. It is likely that the theme of the birth of the mandrake from the drops of sperm or from the urine of a hanged man was part of an original myth of the plant. The hanged person, a person condemned to death for serious crimes, or for theft, but innocent, (as specified in various sources) would therefore have been a certain man, likely protagonist of the original story.
In the transformation of the myth into popular belief, the reason for the unfair condemnation disappears and the analogy refers to every hanged man.
The relationship between mandrake and death is present in other beliefs. Often the presence of the plant is associated with the places where corpses are buried, such as the surroundings of cemeteries.
In Greek culture there is a certain relationship between the mandrake, the dog and the goddess Hecate. The reign of this dark deity of the underworld is identified precisely with the cemeteries. A group of folk and mythological tales present in European, Arab and Asian cultures could be traced back to a different original myth. From these stories emerges a theme placed at the time of the origins of man, in which man himself is made to originate from the mandrake, exploiting the very anthropomorphic image of the root.
In the stories we can read how “the first men would have been a family of gigantic sensitive mandrakes that the sun would have animated and which, alone, would have detached themselves from the earth”. Or, that "man originally appeared on earth in the form of monstrous mandrakes, animated by an instinctive life, and that the breath of the Most High forced, transmuted, roughed up, and finally uprooted, to make them beings endowed with thought and own movement. [...] From this we could deduce that the mandrake is linked to a myth of the origin of man ".
Although this is not a myth of the origin of the mandrake, it is interesting to note how, in these cosmogonies, the origin of the plant is believed to be older than that of man.
As you can see, a real, well-structured myth of the origin of the mandrake has not come down to us. Only a few isolated traces, which have been altered each time, have met with some success in popular belief and in fables. The fact remains that this poisonous plant was considered primordial, created before, or at the very beginning, of humanity.
Some of the information contained in the article is taken from the book: "The god of intoxication" by Elèmire Zolla (Einaudi).
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Since ancient times, the mandrake has always been present in magical rites, considered the essence of the animal and plant world together.
It was used in the preparation of love elixirs. Legend has it that when a root is uprooted, the plant emits a scream similar to a newborn. Together with seven red roses and seven carnation flowers, it promises nights of passion. Among its many uses, it was used to charm travelers and be able to rob them while they were busy with courtesans. There are no texts by alchemists, since ancient Egypt, that do not mention the use of the Mandrake: it is the esoteric plant par excellence!
A specimen of Mandrake - source shutterstock
Pilosella is still widely used today in herbalists and in the preparation of natural supplements. Its peculiarities are those of having strong draining, anti-inflammatory and spasmodic effects, as well as antibiotics (a characteristic for which it is no longer used). It was (but still is) used for the treatment of respiratory diseases such as asthma, whooping cough, bronchitis and cough. Also considered magical for its power in healing the wounds of soldiers returning from wars, applying it to deep cuts, it helps in blood coagulation.
White sage was very common among the Native American tribes, by drinking an infusion of this plant it was possible to purify oneself from all symptoms and even from the shadows of depression. Or it could be collected in small bundles tied together, creating incense. With its smoke it is possible to purify domestic environments, prepare the places chosen for the ceremonies and chase away the negative energies left after family quarrels. Her herbal tea was used as an elixir of postpartum courage, so as to give new mothers strength to take care of their offspring. Today it is widely used as incense at home, it is recommended to light it and then pass it in every room. It leaves a very dry and spiritual scent, it is advisable to open the windows during use.
The Black Giusquimano
The black henbane is a plant toxic, poisonous and definitely not recommended, given its delusional and hallucinatory effects. It was widely used by older shamans, according to beliefs it helped them to have visions of the past and predictions of the future. In the most modern era, associated with other drugs, it was used as a remedy for car sickness, seasickness and associated with morphine, used in post-operative recovery. This plant with a beautiful flower has been the cause of many poisonings, the witches chose it as the main ingredient in toxic potions to be handed to the enemy. Its intake can lead to many imbalances as well as hallucinations, it is also the cause of severe tachycardia, redness and even death.
Mipacho (rustic nicotine) it is the closest relative of the tobacco plant, typical of Amazonia. For the Amazonian tribes, it is among the most important of the sacred plants and was used above all against pressure drops. Considered a real substitute for common tobacco, it was already smoked by the ancient Maya and Aztecs. Compared to the tobacco we know, Mipacho contains twenty times the amount of nicotine, and was ideal for the first rudimentary cigars smoked only by the shamans of the tribes.
The shaman of the Native American tribes - source shutterstock
Who are the shamans
Are the healers, i essays, those who know. Shamans are sacred figures who boast magical powers by nature, the older they are, the more powerful they are considered. Thanks to the use of shamanic plants and their magical powers, the shamans had a strong impact on the tribes they belonged to. There are shamans in all tribal scriptures, from Amazonia to New Zealand. Very powerful were the shamans of the Australian tribes, but also those of the Native American and African tribes. Each of them was considered very high and literally connected with the spirits of the present and the past.
Even today there are many associations that preserve this figure and structured courses to pass on shamanic traditions. This mysterious world has to do with the mind-spirit connection, the cosmos and the entire universe.
Contemplate meditation and mindfulness, practices considered (also by science) decisive for maintaining a balance with one's inner self.
Mandrake or Mandrake: the plant that looks like borage but is poisonous
ROME - After the story of the presence of mandrake or mandrake in frozen spinach under the Bonduelle brand, and of the family hospitalized in Milan precisely because of this plant, Coldiretti recalls that this was the 'witch plant' and warns that, especially in autumn, it can be confused with borage - which is edible and not poisonous and hallucinogenic like mandrake.
The ingredient of magical potions
The mandrake - Coldiretti recalls - is one of the main ingredients for most of the mythological and legendary potions. If we then consider that its roots are characterized by a peculiar bifurcation, reminiscent of the human figure, together with the anesthetic properties it probably contributed to the attribution of supernatural powers to the mandrake in many popular traditions. Mentioned by Machiavelli up to Harry Potter, in ancient times the mandrake was credited with aphrodisiac virtues, while in the Middle Ages magical qualities and it is no coincidence that it was included in the preparation of various potions, Coldiretti emphasizes. She is depicted in some alchemy texts with the appearance of a man or a child, due to the anthropomorphic aspect that takes its root in spring.
As happened with the autumn colchicum, or with certain mushrooms, poisoning by inedible vegetables is very widespread especially in the autumn period, when many enthusiasts go to the countryside to collect various types of vegetables, concludes Coldiretti in emphasizing that the autumn mandrake (Mandragora autumnalis) which is poisonous is often mistaken for borage (Borago officinalis) which is edible and used for soups, omelettes, risottos and stuffed with ravioli. In short, before 'picking' some vegetables to use it in the kitchen, but you do not know exactly what it is, it is good to think twice or have it viewed by an expert or the competent ASL to be sure that you can eat and not remain. poisoned or, worse, die.
There Cicuta virosa it is an aquatic plant that grows in humid places such as marshes and banks of rivers or streams. In Italy it was widespread but has almost disappeared thanks to the reclamation of the marshy areas. It is a close relative of the Cicuta maculatum, the one who killed Socrates, and of the Lesser hemlock (Aethusa Cynapium) also called false price for its similarity, but the Cicuta virosa it is the most poisonous.
Despite its scent, which tastes of carrot, it is very dangerous due to the presence of at least five different alkaloids. All parts of the plant (green fruits, ripe fruits, flowers, leaves, stems and roots) are poisonous and a few grams of the fruit are enough to bring a man to death.
They are toxic and poisonous plants even for herbivorous animals, such as cows and horses, who know how to recognize it and stay away from it. Birds, on the other hand, are immune to it and humans can also poison themselves by eating a bird that has eaten Hemlock.
THEupatorium rugosum is a plant native to the United States. It blooms towards the end of summer and can reach a height of one and a half meters. Contains a high amount of tremetol, a highly toxic substance, found mainly in leaves and stems. It causes tremors, heart attacks and can cause death. If ingested by grazing cows, it can contaminate their milk. It is poisonous to both humans and animals.
How is mandrake, a poisonous plant, different from borage, an edible herb
Mandrake (or mandrake) is a poisonous plant that can be confused with borage - a herb commonly used in cooking (although today it is recommended to use it in moderation) - as they have some characteristics in common
Flowering plants of borage
Both plants have blue flowers and large, wrinkled leaves but the differences in appearance are still perceptible. The mandrake forms only a basal rosette of leaves and its flowers start directly from the ground (see photo above, Giancarlo Donadelli) and not from a stem as in borage (photo on the right).
Furthermore, the leaves of the mandrake are almost hairless (hairless), while those of the borage are heavily hairy. Finally, the mandrake blooms in autumn (in fact it is called Mandragora autumnalis), with bell-shaped flowers, borage in spring with star-shaped flowers. We remind you once again that edible wild plants must be recognized exactly, if necessary with the help of some expert. There confusion between plants, in fact, even if rarely, it can lead to severe intoxication, even fatal. In any case, we advise not to consume a plant that has never been eaten before, even if edible, in abundance, to ascertain any personal intolerances.