The Murderous (And Magical) Mandrake Root 🔪🔮
Small doses are hypnotic, medium doses cause hallucinations and a frenzied state, and high doses cause delirium, coma, and death.
“If you're interested in a plant that looks like a person, has visible sex organs, is an aphrodisiac of the first order, contains mind-altering alkaloids such as hyoscyamine, has been known to cure depression and insomnia, then Atropa Mandragora is the plant for you. But be careful. More than one person who has pulled this plant out of the ground has died in the process.” — Margot Berwin
Mandrake (Mandragora spp.) is a small, unassuming plant with a rich history of use as medicine, poison, and tool for mystics and witches. It’s native to regions surrounding the Mediterranean.
The mandrake appears to be a small, unassuming plant above the surface, with dark green leaves and purple or white flowers.
Below the soil, however, lurks a dense, often humanoid root laden with chemicals powerful enough to drive one to madness (or worse.)
The ingredients in mandrake — a group of tropane alkaloids — are the same compounds found in datura (Datura spp.), belladonna, henabne, and the boracherro tree (Brugemansia spp.). This includes scopolamine, atropine, hyoscyamine, and numerous others.
All three compounds are potent poisons and intoxicants, but scopolamine is the most powerful. This substance blurs the lines between illusion and reality for users, leading them to oscillate between lucidity and a dreamlike daze.
During this state, users become susceptible to the power of suggestion. Some reports suggest this compound can temporarily eliminate one’s sense of free will — making them subservient to the whims of others.
In Colombia, one of mandrake’s cousins, the boracherro tree, is used by thieves to extract scopolamine. The concentrated powder can be blown into victims’ faces, causing them to enter a zombie-like stupor. The thieves can then ask them to hand over their money and jewelry or even pull money from a nearby ATM. The stupefied victim obliges unwittingly.
While it’s unclear if mandrake has ever been used in a similar capacity, the astonishing toxicity of the plant makes it unlikely. Mandrake has a much higher concentration of atropine than the boracherro tree — a compound that’s far more poisonous than it is hallucinogenic.
Even in mild doses, the mandrake and its alkaloids put extreme stress on the heart and brain. Many deaths have occurred over the years from this plant.
In low doses, mandrake is hypnotic — inducing feelings of dizziness, confusion, and sedation. It was often used maliciously for this reason — causing users to fall into trance-like states or kill them outright.
The mandrake’s powerful psychoactive effects, combined with its association with death and the underworld have led to a deep history of lore and superstition around the plant.
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The History & Folklore of the Mighty Mandrake
The uniquely intoxicating and toxic effects of the mandrake, combined with a resemblance to the shape of the human body (complete with sexual organs), have resulted in a lot of superstition surrounding the plant.
The more humanoid the roots shape, the more valuable it was.
Early Europeans believed the dried roots could be dried and kept around the house to protect them from misfortune and infertility.
Some legends state that mandrake roots would fight back if you tried to dig them up. It was thought that the moment the root surfaced above ground, it would release a scream so sharp it could drive anybody in earshot mad — or kill them.
This common myth was portrayed in this Harry Potter scene as the students were taught how to safely transplant the schreeching plant.
Legends like this likely come as a direct result of the plant’s toxicity. If someone harvesting mandrake managed to get some of the fresh juices into an open wound on their hands, it could deliver enough of its toxic cocktail to induce psychotic delirium or death.
To avoid taking damage while collecting mandrake, harvesters would tie the base of the plant to a dog, who would then pull the root from the ground. The harvester could hide from a safe distance and cover their ears.
Medicinally, mandrake was used in small doses as a soporific during surgery, applied topically for joint pain, and as an ingredient with other local herbs to cure depression and mania.
Mandrake also has a strong connection with witches and the supernatural.
Throughout the Middle Ages, mandrake was a popular ingredient in potions and brews — especially love and fertility potions. Some reports suggest it was also a popular addition to witches so-called “flying ointments.”
These ointments combined a mixture of psychoactive herbs that could then be rubbed over the body to induce altered states of consciousness. Topical applications of deliriant plants like mandrake are less toxic than consuming them orally.
One of the most interesting stories of the mandrake claims that the infamously erratic and tyrannical Roman emperor, Caligula, went completely mad after drinking a love potion infused with mandrake. Ironically, he was said to have consumed the potion to “clear his brain” but instead became restless and perpetually terrorized by outlandish apparitions of the sea.
How Mandrake Works
Mandrake owes its effects to a set of tropane alkaloids — hyoscyamine, atropine, and scopolamine.
Other active ingredients include scopine, cuscohygrine, apoatropine, 3-alpha-tigloyloxytropane, 3-alpha, 6-beta-ditigloyloxytropane, and belladonnines.
These alkaloids block the acetylcholine receptors, which make up part of our autonomic nervous system (the automatic functions like temperature control, heartbeat, and digestive function).
Through acetylcholine, mandrake inhibits the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS) — which is responsible for controlling our rest and digestive processes (thermoregulation, digestion, heart rate, etc.).
When this system is inhibited, the other side (the sympathetic nervous system), which makes up our fight or flight controls, goes into overdrive. This causes users to overheat, the heart starts beating frantically, and saliva production shuts down completely. This is the same profile as organophosphate poisoning, which is caused by exposure to certain types of pesticides. It’s also the effects of the deadly sarin gas used in the Tokyo Subway attack in 1995.
Somewhat paradoxically, mandrake also causes users to feel overwhelmingly tired. A fog of confusion and sleepiness overtakes the user, while at the same time, their heart beats out of control, and their mouth and body feel excruciatingly hot and dry.
It would be logical to think that a plant that causes our fight or flight system to go into overdrive would feel stimulating — but mandrake is an enigma.
The same receptors that control PSNS activity in the body have the exact opposite effect inside the brain. Blocking acetylcholine slows brain activity, resulting in feelings of sedation, confusion, and lethargy rather than stimulation and clarity.
Other interactions are responsible for the deliriant and hallucinogenic effects of the plant, but the exact mechanisms remain elusive.
Consuming mandrake root in any capacity can lead to hyperrealistic hallucinations, often featuring monstrous apparitions and manifestations of one’s deepest fears. These visions almost always carry a disturbing and bizarre nature.
Regardless of how bizarre the visions are during the experience, it’s nearly impossible to differentiate what visions one is imagining and what’s truly happening in real life.
Mandrake unplugs the user from any semblance of a shared reality.
Mandrake is just one of several toxic yet culturally important nightshade plants (Solanaceae). This large family contains some 2,700 individual species across 98 genera. They’re found on every continent on Earth except Antarctica.
Nightshades are characterized by their stunning flowers, diverse habitats, and impressive pharmacy of medicinal, nutritional, psychoactive, and toxic phytochemicals.
Datura, belladonna, boracherro, and henbane all contain a potent cocktail of the deadly and deliriant tropane alkaloids.
The tobacco plant is another example — serving as a highly respected plant diety in traditional shamanic rituals, yet is also undeniably toxic. It contains the pyridine alkaloid, nicotine.
These plants are extreme examples of toxic nightshade plants, but there are dozens of nightshades used as food and medicine that are also toxic.
Potato (Solanum tuberosum) — The leaves and green potatoes contain the toxic alkaloid solanine.
Tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum) — The green parts, especially the leaves and stems, contain tomatine, a poisonous alkaloid similar to solanine.
Eggplant (Solanum melongena) — Contains solasonine and solamargine, which can cause irritation in sensitive individuals.
Black Nightshade (Solanum nigrum) — While some cultures eat the ripe berries, unripe berries and other parts of the plant are toxic due to solanine.
Chile Peppers (Capsicum spp.) — Capsaicin is the active ingredient in hot chile papers that produces a burning sensation.
Cultivating Mandrake Root
Growing mandrake is pretty straightforward. It’s a Mediterranean plant, so conditions should mimic the arid climate it comes from.
The mandrake is hardy in planting zones 6–8, so if you live in a cooler climate, you’ll need to grow this plant indoors during the winter.
Mandrake will thrive in full sun or partial shade with well-draining soil. If using containers, make sure the depth is at least 15 inches to allow the root to push deep within the soil.
One of the main reasons for growing mandrake is to obtain the dried, humanoid root — so the less you can stunt root development the better. Use loose soil to make harvesting the root easier when the time comes — which could take up to 3 years from the initial planting.
You can use seeds to grow mandrake (found here), or plant pieces of the harvested root.
Remember that mandrake is poisonous, so wear gloves while harvesting and don’t leave the fresh root around where animals or small children can get access to it.
“Oblivion I can give you. Mystic drops of a magic herb I know that renews the heart. But whoever wants it must gather it with his own hand at the dead of night—the graveyard is the place. To the west of the city, there, where on the gloomy field the pallid moon shines down on abhorrent land the herb has its roots by those ill-famed stones where all sins are atoned for with the last living breath!”
— From Verdi's opera Un Ballo in Maschera (1857)
Give me to drink mandragora,
That I might sleep out this great gap of time
My Antony is away.
— From Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra Act I, Sc. 5
What with loathsome smells,
And shrieks like mandrakes torn out of the earth,
That living mortals, hearing them, run mad...
— From Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet Act IV, Sc. 3
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