Mandrake. Perhaps you know it by some of its other names: Satan’s apple, Devil’s testicle, Circe’s plant. Or perhaps you thought it was just some fictional plant straight out of Harry Potter or some type of witches’ brew. You wouldn’t be too wrong about the last part— the mythology, urban legends, and folklore surrounding the mandrake make it hard to believe it’s a real thing— but real it is, and it has a rich history and a long list of varied uses, from psychedelic inebriant to natural medicine.
What is Mandrake?
Mandrake is actually the root of any plant of the genus Mandragora and can be found growing in a few places around the world, mostly in the Mediterranean, where its use is the best documented. There are up to five plants in the Mandragora genus, and each of these plants tends to be a leafy perennial with short stems and leaves arranged in a floral rosette pattern. The root of the mandrake is generally thick and curvaceous and can look uncannily humanoid. Because of this eerie appearance, there are loads of myths and legends surrounding the plant, not least that its scream can kill anyone who digs it up.
All mandrakes contain the biologically active alkaloids scopolamine, hyoscyamine, atropine, and mandragorin, which makes them toxic, poisonous, and hallucinogenic– especially their roots and leaves, just like the poison flower datura and others in that family.
Mandrake has been used for a variety of magical and medicinal purposes, and its history spans centuries, from the early mention of it in Ancient Egypt and Greece to the Middle Ages.
How was it used and how does it feel?
In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, mandrakes were used to revive victims of the Basilisk’s stare. In real life, consuming enough of the mandrake root can have the opposite effect– it can render the user unconscious, making it a powerful and effective anaesthetic during ancient times– the likes of Plato and Hippocrates cited its benefits, and Plyny used to give a piece of root to his patients to chew on before surgery. In Ancient Egypt, it was used as an aphrodisiac and to increase sexual power, particularly for men.
Several hundred years later, the Bible makes two references to mandrakes– in Genesis, mandrakes are mentioned in passages around infertility and sexuality.
It continued to be celebrated as an anaesthetic late into the Middle Ages, where it thrived as one of the most important medicinal plants of that time, believed to be able to cure insanity, alleviate pain, treat insomnia, and more.
Now, back to witches and wizards: In the Mediterranean, where most native mandrakes are found, there was a legend surrounding the plant that it is possessed by a demon and will scream at and kill whoever tries to dig it up. We know this isn’t true, so perhaps this rumour was just an attempt to prevent theft– centuries ago, mandrakes were in high demand, and there was a large need to protect them. There were even beliefs and rituals around how to dig up mandrakes properly so they wouldn’t kill you or make you go insane from the screams: Instructions included a moonlight gardening session with a dog to help.
Also in the Middle Ages, the mandrake took on a crucial part in various witch’s brews, potions, and more. It was a key ingredient in a hallucinogenic drink called “flying ointment” which also featured the datura as well as other herbs and magical and mystical plants.
Mandrakes can also be found in Jewish mysticism– Kabbalah occultist Éliphas Lévi mentioned the plant in his book Transcendental Magic: Its Doctrine and Ritual in a chapter titled “Witchcraft and Spells,” saying that “[T]he natural mandragore is a filamentous root which, more or less, presents as a whole either the figure of a man, or that of the virile members. It is slightly narcotic, and an aphrodisiacal virtue was ascribed to it by the ancients, who represented it as being sought by Thessalian sorcerers for the composition of philtres.”
Consumption of mandrake root can lead to delirium and falling asleep: As mentioned, it’s been used as an ancient anaesthetic. When taken for narcotic purposes or in larger doses, the high given by the mandrake is similar to the one given by datura and just as deadly– a sedative delirium causing one to struggle to differentiate between what is real and what is a hallucination. Like datura, the high can last for a long time, anywhere from 12 hours to three days. Upon waking, most users will have little to no recollection of the experience. Trippers who’ve experimented with consuming mandrake root report multi-day hospitalization and it’s generally not recommended as a casual substance.
Is it legal and can I still get it today?
Mandrake is completely legal to cultivate, grow, buy, sell, and consume in the USA– except for Louisiana, which has a unique bill that outlaws all psychoactive plants, including any and all in the Mandragora genus, Amanita muscaria, and more.
It’s also legal in Canada, the UK, and most other parts of the world. Most people don’t generally try to ingest it, so it remains an uncontrolled substance.
Yes, mandrake is a real plant, and yes, you can consume its root– but should you? The mandrake is not just one plant, but any root of any plant in the Mandragora genus, mostly found growing in the Mediterranean, and its psychoactive properties come from biologically active alkaloids, which make it function as a hallucinogenic deliriant. Mandrakes have a rich history that starts in Ancient Greece, can be traced through the Bible, and flourished in the Middle Ages. it was used as a sedative for surgery but also as a hallucinogenic ingredient in a variety of witches’ brews, potions, and other concoctions.
Consuming the mandrake root leads to a generally long and unpleasant high similar to moonflower or datura, which was also popular with witches in medieval times.
Should you try it? For narcotic purposes, we’d recommend not– deliriants tend to have unpleasant and dangerous effects, and fatality after consuming mandrake root, especially improperly, is a very real threat. Moreover, the relative obscurity of mandrake makes information on it somewhat difficult to find, which makes taking it without knowing much about it even more difficult.