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What is a Mandrake?

Niki Foster
Updated Mar 05, 2024
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A mandrake is a plant of the Nightshade family used primarily for its anesthetic and supposedly magical properties. It is closely related to the deadly nightshade or belladonna and can cause delirium and hallucinations if ingested in sufficient quantities. The mandrake is also said to act as a fertility aid for women. There are four species, all belonging to the Mandragora genus and all with relatively similar properties.

A common ingredient in both medicine and magic spells from ancient times through the Middle Ages, mandrake continues to see such use today on a lesser scale. Its use as a drug is documented as early as 200 BCE, when besieged Carthaginians gave invading Roman troops mandrake-laced wine in order to kill them in their stupefied state. It is also an ancient anesthetic, used to numb or sedate patients before various operations. In this context, it was typically inhaled.

The mandrake has long had mystical connotations, both because of its narcotic effect and because of the appearance of its root, which is said to resemble a human. According to folklore, the humanoid root screams when it is pulled from the earth, and the human who hears it will go deaf, become insane, or in more extreme versions of the legend, drop dead. Elaborate techniques for harvesting the root were consequently invented; one of the best known involves filling the ears with wax and tricking a dog into pulling out the root, keeping one's distance so the dog will die instead of the harvester. Another macabre legend surrounding the mandrake holds that the plant grows where a man has been hanged.

The use of the mandrake as a fertility aid is alluded to, some believe, in the biblical book of Genesis. In Chapter 30, Rachael, who has not been able to conceive, allows her sister and co-wife to spend a night with their husband Jacob in exchange for some roots found on Jacob's property. Soon afterwards, Rachael becomes pregnant. Some biblical scholars suggest that the plant in question is not mandrake, but the word is the common English translation of the original Hebrew. In any case, it is traditionally believed to increase a woman's fertility, particularly in the East.

Frequently Asked Questions

What exactly is a mandrake?

A mandrake is a plant belonging to the genus Mandragora, known for its roots that often resemble human figures. It's part of the nightshade family and has a rich history in folklore and mythology, where it's often associated with magical properties. The plant also has a history of medicinal use, particularly in ancient times.

Why is the mandrake plant often associated with magic and superstition?

The mandrake's association with magic stems from its human-like root shape and its hallucinogenic properties. Historically, it was believed to scream when uprooted, which could kill or drive a person mad. This lore, combined with its actual sedative and pain-relieving effects, made it a staple in ancient magical practices and rituals.

Are mandrakes toxic?

Yes, mandrakes contain highly toxic alkaloids, such as hyoscyamine and scopolamine. These substances can cause symptoms ranging from hallucinations to rapid heartbeat and can be fatal in high doses. Despite their toxicity, mandrakes have been used in controlled settings for their medicinal properties, such as anesthetics and sleep aids.

Can you find mandrakes growing in the wild?

Mandrakes are native to the Mediterranean region and can be found growing in the wild in parts of Southern Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. They prefer shady areas and are often found in the undergrowth of scrublands and woodlands.

How were mandrakes historically harvested safely?

Due to the superstitions surrounding their lethal screams, historical accounts suggest various methods for harvesting mandrakes safely. One method involved tying the plant to a dog and using the animal to pull the root from the ground, supposedly allowing the dog to bear the brunt of the deadly scream.

What are the modern uses of mandrake plants?

Today, mandrake plants are used primarily for their ornamental value and in traditional medicine in some cultures. However, due to their toxic nature, they are not commonly used in mainstream medicine. Researchers continue to study the alkaloids in mandrakes for potential therapeutic uses, but such applications are approached with caution.

AllThingsNature is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Niki Foster
By Niki Foster , Writer

In addition to her role as a AllThingsNature editor, Niki enjoys educating herself about interesting and unusual topics in order to get ideas for her own articles. She is a graduate of UCLA, where she majored in Linguistics and Anthropology.

Discussion Comments

By anon135067 — On Dec 17, 2010

Can the plant be found today? If so, where?

By anon92079 — On Jun 25, 2010

Mandrakes are a general name for several plants that were used for magic and medicine. The most famous is mandragora officinarum or true mandrake mandragora autumnalis or autumn mandrake in folk lore these we the male and female roots. There is also the finnish mandrakes bryony bryonia dioica the female and and tamus communis the male. There is also American mandrake podophyllum peltatum which is predominantly used in American Indian folk medicine

There are some quite good information pictures and links online. Regards, Alex

By anon72692 — On Mar 24, 2010

where can the mandrake be found?

By anon70377 — On Mar 14, 2010

How is mandrake normally ingested. Can it be smoked?

By anon70376 — On Mar 14, 2010

The other suggested plant is the poppy.

By anon27094 — On Feb 23, 2009

Is it an aphrodisiac that also helps fertility? I believe I read some where that it has nothing to do with fertility, but could possibly inhibit it, due to the other properties. Does anyone know?

By anon26828 — On Feb 19, 2009

If some biblical scholars suggest that the Mandrake is not the plant used in the book of Genesis, then what plant is suggested?

Niki Foster

Niki Foster


In addition to her role as a AllThingsNature editor, Niki enjoys educating herself about interesting and unusual...

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