11 Mar 2020

Apothecary Anecdotes: Mandrake and a whim

Ardd Fotaneg · Botanic Garden

The mandrake roots on display in the Apothecary’s Hall ( large counter cabinet, near the drugs run drawers) were donated by Penny David, one of our members.

We had met on a guided tour of the far side of the lakes before the yellow diggers and hard hats had moved in.
Penny had grown these from seed, and was delighted that her efforts were going to a good home. They are about 10 centimetres long, and very good examples of the convoluted root – in the natural habitat of southern and eastern Mediterranean countries they can grow to a metre in length.

One of the difficulties in growing mandrake is that if you start it off in a pot, it is essential to keep it in more or less the same orientation, as turning the plant by just a small amount can result in leaf drop.

Mandrake has been an important medicinal herb for thousands of years. I suspect that it has been used for possibly every ailment.

These include gout, sleeplessness, general aches and pains, and demonic possession. It is also mildly psychoactive, and has been used to give a bit of “oomph” to beers.

One of the most important uses has been as a painkiller, with the advantage that while sedating the patient to the point of insensibility, the patient may sometimes remain conscious.
The ” soporific ” sponges used by travelling physicians would often include mandrake , before being dried out and activated by wine.  Perhaps this was the significance of the sponge on a stick offered to crucifixion victims?

If you were lucky enough to have mandrake on your land, it would be useful to have some sort of stories to scare off thieves.

Probably the best known is that the plant screams when pulled up, to summon the devil.

The reality is that like many other large roots, it sometimes squeaks when pulled out of the ground! I remember from my gardening days showing a squeaky carrot to the children. It doesn’t seem to work once the root has been in the air for a short while, so no point in gently bending the carrots in the local supermarket!

Another story is that demons protect the plant at night with lanterns.  It took me quite a while to work this one out, I looked at bioluminescence, ultraviolet, and discovered almost by accident that in some parts of North Africa there is a glow worm that lives inside the leaves. Yet another part of the legend and mystique.

The shape of the roots suggested contorted humans, and many believed that the plant was the missing link twixt plants and humans, and it was lucky to own one. Alas, many of the dried mandrake roots are forgeries, with plants such as Bryony having their roots dug up, tweaked a bit with a knife, then replanted for several days.  The side effects of eating this instead of mandrake could be devastating bowel movements!

A whim.

Shortly after I had placed the mandrake roots on display, I discovered that there was actually a plant called Hogwort,  the writer of the Harry Potter stories has said that the name was probably subconsciously noted on a trip to the Natural History Museum. Hogwort contains an oil almost identical to Croton Oil, which has been used for certain skin ailments but is now considered too dangerous to use.
I couldn’t resist making up a label and adding a jar of Hogwort Oil to the display. At least the children appreciate it.

Another whim.
The urge to sing about a lion in a jungle is just a whim away.