Pontifications on Poison
Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.
Monday 25th July 2011
Mandragora officinarum, mandrake
The 'love apples'
With my own Bryonia, usually called white bryony, now fully
entwined through a hazel tree, Corylus avellana, and in full
bloom, I thought I’d look at look at some of the physical
differences and try and suggest why, I believe, the name English
Mandragora officinarum is a low growing perennial that, in my
part of the world, appears early in the year, flowers around
April, May and has died back by the height of the summer. If the
flowers produce fruit these fruits, sometimes called love
apples, lie on the ground. Bryonia dioica, on the other hand, is
a climbing plant that puts out long stems and grips onto to
anything it can find before producing small white flowers in
Looking at the foliage, you would never confuse the two. But,
it is the roots that give both plants their reputations and
gives bryony its name.
Traditionally, it is said that the root of Mandragora
officinarum looks like the human form. It is true that it,
often, produces a bifurcated root appearing to be like the two
legs of a human but this is also true of many other plants
including, of course, many root vegetables like carrot and
parsnip. And, as I found with my own plant, the mandrake does
not always produce bifurcation.
This assumed appearance of the root was taken, using the Doctrine of Signatures, to show that the plant would be a useful aid to sexual function for a man. That, of course, made mandrake root very valuable and contributed to the Mandragora officinarum having some of the richest folklore of any plants. Whole books have been written about the stories associated with mandrake, the best known being, of course, that the plant will scream when pulled out of the ground.
Bryonia dioica, white bryony
Bryony, on the other hand, is notable for its very vigorous
root growth. This gives the chance to create a root that looks
like mandrake. It is said that people would either make a mould
shaped like a bifurcated mandrake root and plant a Bryonia into
it or they would lift the bryony, carve the root to be
mandrake-shaped and return it to the ground for the cuts to heal
over before harvesting the plant for sale.
Obviously, when offered for sale the root would be detached
from the foliage since that would be a complete giveaway. Given
that Mandragora is a narcotic and Bryonia a laxative, you have
to wonder how English mandrake was received by people duped into