Sunday, 6 January 2013

The mandrake's screaming reputation



"Come, my beloved, let us go forth into the field; let us lodge in the villages. Let us get up early to the vineyards; let us see whether the vine hath budded, whether the vine-blossom be opened, and the pomegranates be in flower; there will I give thee my love. The mandrake give forth fragrance, and at our doors are all manner of precious fruits, new and old, which I have laid up for thee, O my beloved."
Song of Solomon 7:12-13 




Mandrake is known from ancient times, its reputation runs in people's mouths for centuries. The oldest references are to be found in biblical scriptures, Genesis and Song of Solomon (or Song of Songs) where its hebrew name (דודאים) is found to mean literally love plant (hum, interesting!). 




There is no other plant in Europe associated with so many myths and legends. The Mandrake is popular due to its natural properties, and that includes (apart from the aphrodisiac effects that hebrews seemed to be so much aware of) hallucinogenic, analgesic and narcotic effects. But the bad reputation of this plant is probably due to the poisonous character of its whole - especially the root. And it is the root the basis of this whole story. The root of this plant resembles a human shape, so it was believed in the dark old times that a dangerous homunculus was the root of the plant. The imagination lead people to the world of non-sense and in the Medieval times it was believed that mandrakes could be fatal to its catcher because the homunculus root would scream so loudly while pulled out of the soil that the scream, they say, would kill the catcher. Creepy and doubtful, right? Nevertheless it was based on this myth that the price of the mandrakes became as high as an artisan's salary around the XVII century. Of course this was probably a high rentable business, people needed the plant to cast love spells, witches also to rub it on their bodies to be able to fly, and for other ordinary daily tasks that people used to do in the Middle Ages. 

The roots of the mandrake with its human shape

Now, I'm going to tell you how did the ancient mandrake catcher managed without killing themselves out of that loud scream, but first let me warn you - do NOT try this at home to avoid innocent deaths! This was done by experienced men, trained and skilled for mandrake cropping. 

According to medieval legends, the Mandragora roots should be collected close to the Summer solstice during full moon nights. It is wise to keep it still by wetting it with blood or urine. Then, a furrow must be dug around it until a rope can be tied to the root and the other end tied to a black dog. The catcher would then leave the place keeping his ears closed and the dog, by following the owner, will pull out the root. After this, the root is of no harm anymore and can be handled without fear. 

Here you can see a professional of the Mandrake catching in action

Ok, let's put some seriousness on this post, Mandragora officinarum L. belongs to the Solanaceae family and you can tell that straight away by looking at the flowers. How? Hum, good one! I think the petal tube and the 5 corolla lobes, associated with the haplostemony character of the stamens helps. The difference with Solanum species is that the dehiscence of the stamens isn't poricidal, and so Buzz Pollination doesn't happen in Mandragora.

Detail of the flower showing the longitudinal dehiscence of Mandragora flowers 

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