The Mandrake (Mandragora) is a rare Mediterranean plant with much lore and history behind it. References to the poisonous root and its pleasantly scented fruits can be found throughout mythology, in folklore associated with witches, and even in the Bible. Earliest recorded use of this plant dates back over three thousand years. In addition to the rich supernatural lore surrounding the plant, it has been used medicinally and as a surgical anesthetic for pretty much just as long, though not so much any more due to its rarity and toxicity. For more information on this toxicity and its uses by witches in flying ointments, check out my other post at Veneficas Unguentum: The Witches’ Flying Ointment
I first read about the legendary plant in a children’s encyclopedia as a child, and I’ve been rather fascinated with it ever since. I never expected I would ever see one, much less grow one (I’ve always killed every plant I’ve touched), but as an adult, it actually ended up being the first plant I’ve ever been able to grow from seed or keep alive and has taught me much about growing plants in general. I get a lot of questions about the plant and its cultivation, so here we go!
The Types of Mandrake
European Mandrake refers to two plants, either Mandragora officinarum (the “white” Mandrake) or Mandragora autumnalis (the “black” or Autumn Mandrake). Officinarum is said to have white flowers and autumnalis has purple… That said, the flower color can actually vary. Officinarum flowers may be white or they may range from light lavendar to a beautiful purple, and autumnalis can also vary between lighter and darker shades of purple. Rather than distinguishing by flower colors, it can be easier (and more accurate) to distinguish the two plants from one another by their leaves (you get used to noticing the differences in shape and texture when growing them both side by side over time) and by the size of their seeds.
Not heard of or worked with as often, there are also Turkmenian Mandrakes (Mandragora turcomanica) and Himalayan Mandrakes (Mandragora caulescens, which looks far different than the other three types). I’d love to grow these later as well and get to know them, but for now I can’t speak much of them.
So called “Substitutions”…
Due to its rarity, people have used other plants as substitutes or counterfeits of the true European Mandrake for a long time. Most commonly substituted today is May-Apple, or what some people call the “American Mandrake”. This is a prime example of how common names for plants can confuse and lead people astray. Know that May-Apple is in no way related to ANY of the true Mandrakes… Mandrake refers to the plant genus Mandragora (such as Mandragora officinarum) whereas May-Apple refers to the plant Podophyllum peltatum. Not only are they not the same Species or Genus, they are not in the same plant Family or even the same scientific Order of plants. The first time they enter the same group when it comes to scientific classification is on the Class level, where they are but one of almost 200,000 plants within that Class. Mammals, for instance, is one example of a Class. To say a May-Apple is similar to Mandragora is, much like saying a bat is similar to a zebra or a whale, especially when you actually observe the plants’ characteristics.
May-Apple’s chemical compounds are far different. The way it looks is far different. How it grows is far different. The thousands of years of history, usage, and lore are all different. Pretty much every detail of the plants are different, and it is in observing the details that a clever witch may get a picture of the Plant Spirit and learn to understand how they may work with the plant. I really have no idea why so many people consider May-Apple to be a substitute to Mandrake. It is not a proper substitute magically, and medicinally it is an even less viable substitution, outright dangerous in those cases. If you are in the market for Mandragora, you should be aware that almost all stores selling “Mandrake” are actually selling nothing more than common May-Apple, even when they wrongly use names like Mandragora. You need to familiarize yourself with how both look before attempting to purchase true Mandragora online, even from “reputable” stores! Better still, grow your own!
Another historical counterfeit, which is seen less commonly today, is White Bryony (Bryonia alba).
The first thing I ever read about Mandrakes as a child was that they were magical plants used by witches in spells and that when uprooted, their roots would release a deadly scream capable of instantly killing a person. It was said that to counter this, the witches would plug their ears and tie a dog to the Mandrake to pull the plant from the ground instead (Childcraft encyclopedias, “The World of Plants”). Those who have grown or harvested Mandrakes of course know that this is a bit ridiculous as it does not scream, nor is it very possible to simply pull the plant’s long taproot out of the ground so easily, especially without breaking it off.
Another common legend is that this plant grows from the fallen semen of a hanged man.
In the bible, Mandrakes are first mentioned in Genesis 30:14-17, where their value and fertility aspects are shown by Leah “hiring” Jacob to lay with her for the night and becoming pregnant, paying her sister Rachel for Jacob using Mandrakes that her son found in the fields. Later its connections with sex are again pointed at, as well as the aphrodisiac effects of the scent of its fruits, in Song of Solomon 7:10-13:
I am my beloved’s, and his desire is toward me.
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 if the vine flourish, whether the tender grape appear, and the pomegranates bud forth: there will I give thee my loves.
The mandrakes give a smell, and at our gates are all manner of pleasant fruits, new and old, which I have laid up for thee, O my beloved.
In Ancient Greece, the plant was associated with Aphrodite, whom was also known as Mandragoritis (or She of the Mandragora) according to the Lexicon of Hesychius of Alexandria, a Fifth-century author. As the plant’s fruits have also been known as “Love-Apples”, and due to its connections with fertility and as an aphrodisiac, this connection with the goddess of love makes much sense. These Venusian traits and lore naturally make it appropriate for some works involving love.
Here, it was also found within Hekate’s Garden at Colchis in the Orphic Songs of the Argonauts. To read more about this and the other plant’s available within Hekate’s Garden, see my other post at Hekate and Her Plants. It is also a plant connected with the Sorceress Medea, and her aunt Circe, a Goddess of Sorcery. An excellent look into the ritual harvest and consecration of the Mandrake in mythology can be found at Sarah Anne Lawless’ Medea’s Ritual of the Mandrake.
In ancient Egypt it is seen as connected to mourning. This connection with death goes in hand with its Saturnian aspects (deep root, poisonous, etc) and uses for spirit work or journey into the underworld. It is also said that it, or depictions of it, were found in the tombs of Pharaohs, that it was grown as a houseplant, and that it was found in the gardens of Hathor, another love goddess.
Later, Mandrake would be found made into dolls or fetishes which served to protect the house among other purposes. These Alrauns, as they were called, had to be cared for and fed regularly or else they are thought to be able to turn against their user. Offerings fed to Alrauns consisted of milk, honey, and blood. When not being fed or worked with, they were to be wrapped in natural fabric and kept in a box. It is important to note that an Alraun is not something to create on a whim, as it is to be treated as a spiritual familiar. A working relationship with the spirit is to be made, and spirits demand respect and attention. If this is something you are interested in, fully do your research and make sure that you are committed before starting the process. One excellent look into working with an Alraun can be found at: Alraun the Spirit Root.
Starting the Seeds
The seeds can be somewhat tricky to start, especially those of the “white” Mandragora officinarum. The “black” Mandragora autumnalis, is much easier to germinate and sprouts anywhere from weeks to a few months, whereas officinarum may take over a year to germinate, although it can and often does sprout much sooner as well. The methods of growing these two plants are much the same.
These seeds need some form of cold treatment. You don’t need the seeds to totally freeze as you might desire with tougher seeds like Belladonna or Aconite, but starting them when the temperature lows are around 40 degrees Fahrenheit, combined with the daily temperature fluctuations between warmer days and cooler nights, is very helpful. Seeds use environmental cues to know when it is safe to germinate. Too soon and they will be subject to frost and die. Too late, and they will not have a long enough season. The key is to make the seeds feel like it is the right time to safely emerge.
One method would be to soak them in water in one’s refrigerator for a couple weeks, changing the water daily. A much quicker method that I highly recommend, especially for the harder to germinate seeds of Officinarum, would be to soak the seeds in a gibberelic acid (GA3) solution for about a day (or even just a bit longer than it takes them all to sink to the bottom). For this, I use about 500ppm concentration for Officinarum seeds and about 250ppm for Autumnalis seeds. Gibberelic acid is a naturally occuring plant hormone which is fairly easily acquired online (I bought mine on Amazon), and quite easy to prepare. A little goes a long way, and it can truly do wonders when it comes to getting hard to germinate seeds to sprout quickly. If you use GA3, soak them at room temperature and in a dark location, as sunlight may break down your solution.
After having soaked your seeds either way (or having decided to skip this step and using natural temperatures outside to aid your germination), plant them in a slightly-alkaline, well-draining soil (you can add a bit of lime to your potting soil as instructed on the packaging to increase alkalinity, and perlite is a good light-weight option to increase drainage). A good rule of thumb for most seeds is to plant them roughly their own depth. From here, place them in area that’s mostly shaded, yet still get’s decent light. Even if you soaked them, placing them outside in the temperatures described above is still a good idea as it will only further boost germination. Otherwise you can get quite good results by placing the seeds inside under a bright light or well-lit window, particularly if weather is not favorable at your location or time. Once planted and placed, keep the seeds moist while waiting on them to sprout, but do not keep them so wet that they rot or your soil molds. You don’t want to drown them. Be patient, as stated it can take up to a year for these to emerge, and you need to be committed to keeping the soil properly moist and healthy as long as it takes.
Potting the Plants
When your seedlings have emerged, it’s a good idea to separate them into individual pots, if they are not already. When they have first sprouted, before they even get their first “true” leaves (the first two you see immediately upon germination are often called “seedleaves”) is an excellent time to do this as the roots are still short. This enables you to easily spoon the entire root and surrounding dirt out in one clump without exposing or disturbing the root too much if you are careful. Doing so when they have become larger, especially if you expose the root and damage feeder roots (the hair like roots extending from the taproot), may result in unnecessary stress, dormancy, and sometimes even death if not cared for correctly afterwards. If you do not like the idea of having to spoon your babies out and replant them, planting your seeds in Jiffy pellets is a very easy alternative as then you simply pop the pellets into whatever pots you want your plants in, once they have germinated.
Some people choose to step up the container sizes as their Mandrakes grow. I have done this, but more often I tend to pot them to their final size pots as soon as they sprout, and there are a few reasons for this. When the root senses it is near the bottom, it will begin twisting and distorting itself, as it knows it cannot grow any deeper. To plant in a smaller pot is often to allow your plant to think it does not have room to grow any more. It can even miniaturize some plants. If you plant directly into a deep pot, it allows the root to travel further down and much straighter. It tells your plant it has more room to grow more freely. It makes not only for a nicer and larger root, but healthier/larger aerial parts as well. I usually use a pot between 12-15 inches deep (width is not so important), but roots may get as long as three to four feet if given the room and time to do so. Do note that with a deeper pot, you will want to be even more sure of adequate drainage, as a greater amount of soil will take longer to dry out when watered. The more space (and time to fill that space) that you give your plant, the more your plant will give you in return.
No tree, it is said, can grow to heaven unless its roots reach down to hell. – Carl Jung
I do not really recommend planting them in the ground, however, as it will be quite difficult to dig up much of the root without breaking it. It will also be more prone to weather and insects if you do not have the option of bringing it into shelter when needed.
Situating the plants
Once sprouted and potted to whatever size pot you choose for the time being, it is time to start getting your seedlings used to more light. Too much sunlight will kill them. Too little sunlight will cause elongated stems on the leaves or even for the plants to grow upwards. Caring for your plants, you will learn to listen to cues such as these to determine your plants needs. You must also keep in mind where you live. Here in Pennsylvania (zone 5-6), I can pretty much leave my plants in the sun all day without worry. Those who live closer to the equator, may need to provide more shade than I do so that their plants are not cooked. Even further North where I live, you must take your time introducing the Mandrakes to more sunlight until they get used to it, and pay close attention that they are not dying. Note that Officinarum does seem to be more sensitive to the sun than Autumnalis in my own experience.
As they first adapt to the sun, especially if they are used to low light and have long stems, the leaves will get shiny and flaccid. When this happens, they may need moved into shade for a while until they perk back up. If it’s just an hour or two until sun goes down, it may be best to simply leave them there to “suffer through” so that they may respond by further getting stronger and more resilient to the sun, but that depends and takes some playing around with. Gradually, new leaves will form with hopefully shorter stems, and the plant will become much stronger. Over time, you will find out how much sun is enough and how much is too much, and find a place where they grow happily and healthily without having to move them quite so much.
I have heard so many people going on and on about the sun being bad and them needing so much shade, and have seen so many photos of Mandrakes with long stems. If you google, you will see Mandrakes growing naturally in fields, usually with bright sun. So give your sad babies the light they are so desperately reaching for, and get them used to whatever light they can tolorate, as light is their source of energy and gives them the power they need to grow faster. They aren’t going to truly flourish without energy. That said, do not overdo it, especially to soon, or you will just end up with dead plants.
Caring For and Feeding the Plants
Once the plants have sprouted, been planted in properly-draining soil, and moved to a well-lit location, the hard work is mostly out of the way. Now it is simply a matter of keeping them healthy and watching them grow. Allow the top inch or so (depending on how deep the root goes) to dry out between each watering. This will help prevent overwatering and mold from appearing. A bit of dry also encourages roots to reach out further for water over time. That said, once again pay attention to plant cues as to when they need watered.
A well-balanced fertilizer once a month or so is a good idea, look at the N-P-K numbers for this. The Nitrogen (N) helps leaves grow. The Phosphorus (P) helps flowering and fruit, as well as root growth. The Potassium (K) helps to keep your plant healthy, prevents disease, and also helps the roots. You do not want to over-fertilize, more does not necessarily mean better. Too much fertilizer may burn or kill the plant, make the soil more acidic, or even cause the root to become unable to absorb the things it needs from the dirt.
Nutrient needs are different when a plant is growing vs when it is flowering and fruiting as well, for instance, you may want to lower the nitrogen in the ratio during this time and increase things such as P, K, magnesium, and calcium when they are flowering/fruiting. There are countless diagrams and websites that will make plant cues easier to read, and over time, you will get the hang of it.
It is a good idea to browse the internet to learn what various nutrient deficiencies or toxicities look like in plants. Pay attention to any specific changes in the appearance of your plants, as they are indicators of what they need and what they have too much of. Yellowing between the veins may indicate a different problem than the yellowing of the veins themselves or the yellowing of the bottom leaves first, you must be specific. If leaves begin to grow distorted or hooked, other micronutrients such as lack of calcium may be the problem.
Other additives to your fertilizing routine such as kelp and humic acid, while not focusing on specific primary nutrients themselves, can be very powerful. Together, and in the right ratios, these two additives can really kick start your plants growth and the size of your root. Simply, they do a lot of good things for your plants and help fertilizers work better. The results can be dramatic, but again do not overdo it and allow the surface to dry between watering or you may find that the kelp eventually causes a green layer on the surface of your soil that makes it much more difficult to water your plants and for the dirt to “breathe” or drain.
Developing the Relationship
Caring for your plants is a service which over time will naturally help you to build a relationship with those plant spirits, though they may not reveal themselves to you for some time. While it sounds silly, talking to them while caring for them is a common means of reaching out to the plant spirits as well. Tell them what you are doing, ask before harvesting or trimming off leaves, etc. Tell them your desires, what you want from them, and how you feel about them. Tell them what you wish to learn from them or use them for. It may be a good idea to meditate with or upon them as well. Giving the Mandrakes a small taste of blood, or even a small amount of sexual fluids mixed in with their watering is also not an unheard of practice.
Treat your standard fertilizer feedings as an offering to them as you would with any other spirit. You can also get creative with it and add more “typical” offerings into your more standard plant fertilizer blends. Common offering to certain nature spirits is milk and honey. Milk happens to be somewhat nourishing to plants and feeds soil microbes that help your plants as well. The note here is don’t use a lot or your soil will smell. Honey is not as beneficial as milk, but its sugars can also feed microbes. However, too much sugars can affect absorption of things in the roots and be bad. Perhaps once a month I would simply add a small amount of milk and a few drops or so of honey in with your watering/fertilizer as a regular offering, perhaps on Full Moons or something that aligns with your own personal practice.
Over time you will get to know the spirit, and it you. It will also give you something to do work on with your plant while waiting on it to be ready to harvest (and make it more potent and willing to work with you when you do) or while waiting on it to simply grow and eventually flower. I’ve had Officinarum flower in less than a year, after hearing others say it can take up to four. Autumnalis, on the other hand, has taken three years to flower for me.
If you are truly lucky, the flowers will turn to fruit. The fruit have a very sweet, almost overly ripe fruity scent to them. It smells quite pleasant, however, when the fruit is smashed or cut open, the scent becomes much stronger and the overly ripe aspect smells so much stronger that it smells almost of rot. People have mixed feelings on its scent, but generally like it better when the ripe fruit is whole and unharmed. The taste is sweet as well, but again has a strong overly ripe taste to it and fairy foul undertones. According to The Encyclopedia of Pyshchoactive Plants by Christian Rätsch, the fruit is edible with up to ten having been eaten with no effects (the seeds however are toxic and must be avoided, I believe). That said, please do not eat the fruits from under researched poisonous plants at home, as you still could have allergies or an atypical reaction or chemicals could be altered by growing conditions or any other number of things. I am offering information only, not recommending their consumption, have sense or do so at your own risk and responsibility.
Repotting and Dormancy
In time you may find your soil does not drain very well, or feel that you’re plant would do better with fresh soil. You may simply want to see your progress after a year or so (do not check your root very often, disturbing it is not good and you will only risk killing it or setting it back by doing so). If this is the case, once every year or two, you can repot it. To do this, slowly dig the dirt around it away in a careful manner as to not break any pieces of the root off of the main taproot. Similarly, try very hard not to break the hair-like feeder roots either if you can avoid it.
After you have repotted it into fresh soil, do not be surprised by leaves going limp and dying. The crown of the root may go bare and leafless for a few months after repotting it. If it does this, you will need to be even more careful with watering and keep it more on the dry side, else your root will be more prone to rotting. If you keep it healthy, its leaves will eventually come back strong.
Taking Cuttings, Root and Aerial
You may also snap off or cut off larger side roots growing from the main taproot and plant them to propagate new plants. To do this, treat your root cuttings as you would a dormant root and keep it more on the dry side. Also, if your crown splits and develops multiple centers, over time as leaves fall off and they grow new, a sort of stem will be produced. These aerial stems may also be cut off and planted to start new Mandrakes without disturbing the roots as a root cutting would. Taking a mixture of cuttings is a quick way to get more decent sized Mandrakes and is far faster than growing by seed, if it is something you are interested in.
Harvesting and Preserving
After two or three years, you may decide that you wish to harvest your root. I know many choose to wait until the root is entering dormancy before harvesting. My personal practice is to try to only harvest when the plant is full of leaves and flourishing, as this is when the leaves are sending lots of energy to the root and it is at its strongest. If you want it whole, unearth it carefully so that you do not break off any pieces of the taproot. Obviously if you are harvesting it, you will not need to be as gentle with the stringy feeder roots as you would if you plan on replanting it and keeping it alive.
A dehydrator is a preferable way to dry it as you do not want your root to rot or mold after all of the hard work you have put in. Choose a dehydrator with adjustable temperatures and try to dry it on the a lower setting, as many phytochemicals are destroyed by heat. Many chemicals can take heat without any ill-effects, but it’s always good to have your root as complete in quality as possible. Slicing the root will make for faster, more thorough drying. A whole root will naturally take longer to dry. You will want to make sure that it is indeed thoroughly dry either way, and not just the outside of the root that is dry, otherwise you will have issues with quality and mold.
Alternatively, if there is an adequate amount of leaves on your Mandrake and it is doing well, you may choose to harvest a leaf or two at a time and hang them to dry, only harvesting leaves for the time being so that you do not have to hurt your root. Sometimes trimming a leaf or two off has the added benefit of encouraging new growth.
It is also possible to make a tincture of your root or leaves, so that you may add the essence of Mandrake to other recipes by the drop. For things like incense, this will enable the essence of Mandrake to be in your final blend, without the somewhat unpleasant smell of burning root. Pressing them is another option for keeping parts of the plant easily accessible within your personal grimoire or plant book.
Note on Future Video: Yes this is a lot to read, yes I am somewhat sorry lol. I will be trying to create a video discussing this information as soon as I get over my current cold, so keep an eye out for it within the next month. Hopefully this will make the information easier to absorb, especially for those with different learning styles! I will try to be as timely as possible lol.
Additional Reading and Resources
The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants by Christian Rätsch
Witchcraft Medicine by Müller-Ebeling, Storl, and Rätsch.
The Witching Herbs by Harold Roth
The Witches’ Ointment by Thomas Hastis
Plants of the Devil by Corrine Boyer
Mastering Witchcraft by Paul Huson
The Horn of Evenwood by Robin Artisson
Traditional Witchcraft: A Cornish Book of Ways by Gemma Gary