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Beware the mandrake.

Many years ago back in Germany I visited an old family friend, Sister Elisabeth. She lived in a 12th Century convent called "Wienhausen," now a retirement home for the "Ladies of the Land of Hannover." There, she had her own suite, and as a volunteer, conducted visitors around the ancient convent and its church, talking about its history and art treasures and telling interesting anecdotes. So, on my visit, I toured the buildings with her, including the "Ladies' Chapel" and the church for the 'common people.'

A few years before my visit, the 800 year old church had been renovated. Under one of the pews the workers found a nest, containing some eggs and an "Alraune," German for mandrake root. Why were these things hidden there?

In pre-Christian times it was the practice in some parts of Europe to bury a live offering under the foundation of important buildings. The 12th Century was, of course, a more enlightened Christian era, but, could one be absolutely sure that the old Nordic gods weren't still around somewhere? Killing a human being was out of the question, and so eggs and a mandrake root were substituted. The egg was a symbol of life in German culture, a custom still retained in our Easter egg, and the mandrake root was supposed to be magic, and almost human.

The mandrake (Mandragora officinarum), sometimes called the devil's apple, belongs to the nightshade family (Solanaceae) and is a relative of the tomato, potato and deadly nightshade. It is not a plant of great beauty. It has a long taproot, branched and sometimes over 50 cm (20") long. Its shape somewhat resembles the human form. Long leaves arise from the apex of the root, as well as the flowers, and, later the apple-like fruit (botanically, a berry). Known in antiquity, it was widely used medicinally, but was also surrounded by myths. It contains an alkaloid called mandragorin which, according to Mrs. M. Grieve, is similar to atropine, the alkaloid derived from deadly nightshade. Mandrake is a very powerful emetic and purgative, and was used as an anodine (pain reliever) and soporyphic (sleep inducing). It was used in a sleeping potion for patients in constant pain, also against melancholy, convulsions, rheumatic pain and scrophulous tumours. In Plinius' time (23 to 79 A.D.) it was used as an anaesthetic. A piece of root was given to the patient to chew on before an operation to relieve him of pain. In the Middle Ages surgeons administered infusions of the plant as an anaesthetic. It is no longer used medicinally due to its high toxicity. This plant is poisonous and dangerous; not to be used internally or externally.

Mrs. Grieve quotes from Herbarium of Apuleius, For witlessness, that is the devil sickness of demoniacal possession, take from the body of this said wort mandrake by weight of three pennies, administer to drink in warm water as he might find most convenient--soon he will be healed.

The Anglo Saxons thought the plant had mysterious powers against demoniacal possession, but it was also believed that it could be fatal to dig it up and that it grew best under gallows.

Plinius writes that one had to wait for contrary winds to dig it up, and then not dig for it until after sunset. He said one should dig around the plant with a sword, making three circles. Another recommendation is, again, to dig around the plant, but then to tie a dog to the exposed root of the plant with rope. The dog is then called, and will be turned to stone when he pulls the plant from the ground. Otherwise the screams and moans of the plant will kill the human by petrification.

Mandrake is native to southern Europe, and is not at all winter hardy here. It seems safe to say that nobody on the prairies will be turned to stone by this plant--it won't grow here!

I raised a mandrake once from seed--in the greenhouse. When I knocked it out of its pot, I found it had a forked and rather gnarled root, but it didn't scream, nor did it turn me to stone, and thus, I lived to tell the tale.

References:

Mrs. M. Grieve, F.R.H.S., Penguin Handbooks, 1980.

Das grosse illustrierte Pflanzenbuch, Bertelsmann Verlag, 1967.

L.H. Bailey, Manual of Cultivated Plants, MacMillan, 1949.

Susanne Olver is a retired horticulturalist. She worked at the Botany Department greenhouse at the University of Manitoba for many years. She has an ODH from the University of Guelph.
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Title Annotation:myths and legends of eggs and mandrake roots
Author:Olver, Susanne
Publication:Prairie Garden
Geographic Code:4EUGE
Date:Jan 1, 2006
Words:759
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