There live a type of little people, whose bodies are brown and rough. During the day, they hide deep below the ground. They come out to play only in one’s dreams or the visions which come from tasting their cthonic flesh. In their bowl of leaves, they place white and purple flowers and fruits made of radiant gold, an offering to the divine. Such sweet smells rise from decorated crowns, like an incense to Aphrodite. Was it she who first breathed life into such an earthen doll? Is it her ecstatic and sweetly-arousing breath that one now smells on the wind, when her children offer their gold? Is it she who empowered them with lust? And if Hekate gave these peaceful yet mischievous peoples a home in her garden, surely it was also she who gave them such power, venom, and scream?
Types of Mandrake
There are four primary species of Mandragora, with two of them falling under the umbrella of European Mandrake; the “Official” Mandrake (Mandragora officinarum) and the Autumn Mandrake (Mandragora autumnalis). Both grow in rosettes with deep taproots, sprouting flowers and fruits from their centers, and growing to about three-feet across. The leaves of the Official Mandrake tend to quickly grow larger than those of the Autumn Mandrake. Autumn Mandrake’s leaves tend to be darker and more crinkly, and its seeds about half the size. The sweet-smelling fruits begin green and ripen to yellow. I find that they have a sort of overly-ripe undertone to their scent, which doesn’t become very noticeable unless the fruits are crushed. The taste of the fruits resembles the smell, with the slightly heinous undertone present. While the rest of the plant is definitely toxic, sources currently disagree on the toxicity of the fruit. While some poisonings have been reported (the toxicity may or may not have resulted from the seeds, rather than the fruit), others say that eating a couple fruits will do no harm.
The largest of the Mandakes, is the Turkmenian or Iranian Mandrake (Mandragora turcomanica). This species grows to be five or six feet across, and closest resembles Official Mandrake.
The Himalayan Mandrake is most unusual compared to the rest; it grows vertically and has flowers that remind me somewhat of Hellebore. Its overall appearance is otherwise more reminiscent of Atropa spp. Its seeds are very small.
Unless otherwise stated, it is Mandragora officinarum and Mandragora autumnalis being discussed.
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).
History and Lore
When it comes to plants with rich magical lore, the European Mandrake is royalty. The plant is mentioned in the Bible and other mythologies. In the Bible its value is hinted at several times, in situations regarding love or sex. First, Leah pays her sister, Rachel, to borrow her husband and lay with him for a night. The currency to pay for a night with Jacob was some Mandrakes that her son found in a field, and she became pregnant afterwards. Later it is mentioned again:
“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. The plants’ fruits are also known as “Love-Apples”, and due to its connections with fertility and its aphrodisiac properties, the plants’ connection with the goddess of love makes sense.
According to the Orphic Songs of the Argonauts, it was found in Hekate’s Garden at Cochlis. 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. Here, it was grown as a houseplant, and was said to be found in the gardens of Hathor, another love goddess.
One tale would have your believe that the plant grows from the semen of men who been hanged. It also has a long, deep association with witches. The human-shaped root would be made into dolls or fetishes which served to protect the house, among other purposes.
Mandrake is said to let out a terrible scream when unearthed, resulting in the death of the person digging it up. To get around this danger, one would plug their ears and then tie a dog to the plant. Using something like food or noise to lure it forth, the dog would then be tricked into pulling the root out. In this case, the dog would suffer the curse and die in place of the human. No dogs are harmed in my own workings with Mandrake. However, my dog Theia does love to smell its flowers and fruits. In my area, the coyotes often tend to howl like mad all day long during its fruiting period. It sets a rather appropriate mood.
The seeds of Mandragora require a cold treatment to germinate. They may be soaked in a refrigerator for a couple weeks with daily water changes, but the best method utilizes natural temperature fluctuations outside. During spring, when the lows are around 39-40°, place somewhere well lit but protected from any intense sun that may occur.
Gibberelic acid may be used to skip or compliment this cold treatment. To use gibberelic acid, prepare as instructed to 250-500ppm and soak seeds for approximately 24-48 hours. Autumn Mandrake seeds should be soaked at the lower end of this range, and Official at the higher end. During this soak, keep the jar protected from light and at room temperature.
The seeds should be planted in a well-draining medium, about 1/4″ deep. I like to start with a medium that already drains well, such as cactus soil. Adding perlite, pine bark, and half-inch rocks or pumice further aerate the soil and aid drainage. A generous dose of lime will also provide your plants with the calcium and alkalinity they love.
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 best time to repot a Mandrake seedling is perhaps just a couple days after germination, while the root is still small. This avoids accidentally sending the Mandrake into dormancy. Try to take surrounding dirt with the root, so that the root is not disturbed. A good basic pot size would be 12-15 inches, with height mattering more. If you can find a pot that is two to three feet tall, and give your seedling plenty of love, you’ll likely find that it will take advantage of that extra space. I have been quickly rewarded with some truly giant roots, with the only difference being the starting pot size used.
No tree, it is said, can grow to heaven unless its roots reach down to hell. – Carl Jung
When choosing a pot, keep in mind larger, taller pots will also allow your root to grow straight down and form a nicely shaped root. Smaller pots, and stepping up pot size slowly, can result in twisted and distorted roots with more branching.
Should your Mandrake lose its leaves and go dormant, keep your soil more on the dry side until it returns. Sometimes this may take several months and much patience. Once the Mandrake has been in its pot for a year or two, this period of dormancy (or just as the Mandrake root is developing nubs and beginning to come back) is one of my favorite times to give them fresh soil or repot them. Sometimes this encourages them to come back faster. If it is repotted during a period of growth, it will often leave the plant temporarily weakened or dormant.
Many shelter their Mandrakes far too much from the light. Learn to pay attention to plant clues. If the leaves stems become long and are standing almost straight up, it is reaching for light. Stems should be short and strong, but if your leaves are wilting and laying on the dirt the sun may be too much (or simply too much at the time). It is important to give them time to adjust to additional light and to increase light slowly. Experiment with this, as the more light you can adjust them to, the faster and stronger they will grow. When adjusting a plant to more light, some temporary wilting will sometimes occur in older leaves. New leaves will generally grow in stronger if allowed. In general, Autumn Mandrake can tolerate more sun than Official can.
The time of year will also play a role in their care. In the summer, I must move them to a shaded area. In the milder months, full sun is fine. During the cold season, they are brought in so they do not freeze to death. You must learn how they react to your climate, as they can be somewhat finicky for some people.
If you are in a zone 6-7 or greater, you may be able to simply plant your Mandrake in the ground and leave it year-round. If planted in the ground, realize that harvesting the whole root will be nearly impossible, especially without breaking it. Also realize it will be much harder to protect them from insects.
Water when needed, again leaves may provide a clue until one gets the hang of it. Allow the top inch or so to dry between watering. They don’t like it too wet. Letting the top dry more also forces them to reach deeper for water.
A balanced fertilizer will be of use. Tomato fertilizer is one readily-available option that does great. Mixing kelp and humic acid into this fertilizing routine will also aid your plants health and root growth. Some may prefer an organic option, in which case certain compost blends may be of use. 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.
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.
When roots split and branch, a cutting may be taken from them and planted. If this root cutting is cared for as a dormant root would be (drier than during active growth), it will sprout leaves. When a root has developed multiple crowns, sometimes these aerial parts may also be cut off and planted.
Developing a 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.
Harvesting and Preserving
Harvesting should occur only after the plant is old enough to have already flowered, preferably over three year. Many will become impatient and harvest before this, but waiting until maturity (flowering) is common practice with nightshades and most other plants in general. It is also important to consider that many nightshades, when young, will contain a different ratio of alkaloids than adult plants. Generally immature nightshades contain a higher percentage of Scopolamine than mature plants do. (The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants (1998, Park Street Press) by Christian Rätsch)
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. Tincture also comes in handy if medicine is desired. Pressing them is another option for keeping parts of the plant easily accessible within your personal grimoire or plant book.
Historically, Mandrake has been used for pain, insomnia, and anesthesia. For anesthesia, its juices were combined with other plants such as Opium Poppy and Henbane. A “soporific sponge”, soaked in these juices, would be held under the patients nose before surgery. It was also used for melancholy and as an aphrodisiac.
In my own practice, I use Mandrake in tincture form for pain, insomnia, and anxiety. Mandrake has a hypnotic effect. When used for insomnia, this can help a great deal. Other times, rather than falling asleep, I will end up deeply relaxed and in a state of trance. When used for pain, it is better for milder pains. An oil may also be used, applied topically, and may be milder and safer.
After the tincture begins to kick in, I notice a fairly rapid release of muscular tension followed by very physical waves of relaxation.
Historically, nightshades containing tropane alkaloids have often been tinctured at a ratio of around 1:8-1:10, with only the dose varying between them. This is a good place to start until one is more familiar with the effects and how they react (and to see if they have any adverse reactions). For my own use, I tend to make my Mandrake tincture with a 1:2 ratio.
I will attempt to create a post better discussing the safety issues and dosing of such low-dose botanicals at a later time, as there seems to be a lot of misunderstanding on the matter within the community, either being fearful or totally abandoning all caution…
Due to the hypnotic and trance-inducing effects, Mandrake is often used as an ingredient in witches’ ointments. These ointments have been used for spirit contact, flight, or shapeshifting. The dried root may be used in workings for divination, necromancy or protection. Its root or fruits may be used in workings related to sex or love.
When crafted into a doll or fetish, the root is called an alraun. This is also one of the common names for the plant. Once awakened to its purpose, an alraun must be cared for and fed regularly so that it does not turn against its 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. A working relationship with this spirit is to be made. Attention and respect must be given. This is not something that is undertaken unless one is sure they will be committed to the task. One excellent look into working with an Alraun can be found at: Alraun the Spirit Root.
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.
Update: It’s been more than a month. Maybe one year 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