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Featured Plant

Mandragora officinarum has a narrow distribution, found mainly in northern Italy and along coastal areas of former Yugoslavia. It is a hardy, herbaceous perennial which can be seen growing from March onwards, when it emerges from dormancy. In spring, it is recognised by its star-shaped white or mauve flowers, held in a tight rosette close to the ground. The flowers are followed by broad, elliptical foliage which persist through the summer and are accompanied by egg-shaped fruit which are tomato-like in appearance. The mandrake belongs to the Solanaceae, a taxonomic family that includes the economically important food crops potato and tomato. Many plants of the Solanaceae family contain active compounds, some of which are highly toxic. Familiar species like the deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna), and tobacco (Nicotiana tabaccum) are members of the family, both known for their toxicity. There are many representatives of the Solanaceae family throughout the RCP garden. Records of the use of Mandragora officinarum and its application as an anaesthetic date back to c.70AD, where the Greek physician Dioscorides, in his Materia Medica, describes the unfortunate patients: ‘they do not apprehend the pain, because they are overborn with dead sleep’. Several active compounds have been identified including scopolamine (hyoscine), a drug which is used prior to surgery to cause sedation, amnesia and as an anti-emetic. The compound is toxic in large doses, and may result in hallucination, coma and death. Mandragora officinarum is also known to contain the drug atropine, another prescription-only medicine which is used in the treatment of bradycardia. Both atropine and scopolamine feature in the WHO List of Essential Medicines. Due to its long history of use in western medicine, the mandrake makes several appearances in literature, film and folklore. The human-like root has inspired many stories, where it is often anthropomorphised or imbued with supernatural power. The mandrake is occasionally seen depicted with an animal tied to the plant by a rope. It was once believed that when pulled from the ground, the mandrake would scream. Superstition held that hearing the cries of the mandrake would result in certain death, and so in a bid to avoid the screams of the mandrake, animals were often used to lift the roots. More recently, the mandrake appeared in the films Pan’s Labyrinth and Harry Potter. In the RCP garden, the Mandragora officinarum can be found at more than one location, demonstrating the different medical traditions in which it has been employed. Specimens can be seen in the Pharmacopoeia gardens of House 4 and House 8, since the plant was listed twice in the college’s seventeenth century herbal. Further specimens can be seen growing in Bed I – the Classical medicine bed – and Bed E, where traditional European herbs can be found.

Medicinal

Dioscorides (Materia Medica, c. 70 AD) has more information on its sedative and analgesic properties: ‘Ye juice being drunk ... doth expel upward phlegm and black choler ... but being too much drank it drives out life.’ and ‘that there be given of it ... to such as shall be cut, or cauterised ... for they do not apprehend the pain, because they are overborn with dead sleep.’ It is interesting to see that the use of hyoscine/scopolamine has continued for two millennia for the same purpose.
Gunther, R.T.. (1938). The Greek Herbal of Dioscorides ... Englished by John Goodyear.

Culpeper: under ‘Herbs’ he writes: ‘Mandragora. Mandrakes. Fit for no vulgar use, but only to be used in cooling ointments.’ Under ‘Roots’: ‘Mandagorae. Of mandrakes. A root dangerous for its coldness ... the root is scarcy [=scarce], and dangerous for the vulgar to use; therefore I leave it to those that have skill.
Culpeper, Nicholas. (1652). The English Physitian. London.

This is a member of the family Solanaceae, and like Atropa belladonna and Hyoscyamus niger contains the atropinic alkaloid, hyoscine/scopolamine. This is still used as a premedication prior to surgery as it causes sedation, a degree of amnesia, and is anti-emetic. It also produces a dry mouth and a slow pulse (unlike atropine), but in larger doses hallucinations, coma and death. In the elderly especially it may cause excitement and confusion. Dioscorides (Materia Medica, c. 100 AD) has more information on its sedative and analgesic properties: ‘Ye juice being drunk ... doth expel upward phlegm and black choler ... but being too much drank it drives out life.’ and ‘that there be given of it ... to such as shall be cut, or cauterised ... for they do not apprehend the pain, because they are overborn with dead sleep.’ It is interesting to see that the use of hyoscine/scopolamine has continued for two millennia for the same purpose.
Oakeley, Dr. H. F. . (2013). The Gardens of the Pharmacopoeia Londinensis. link

Acetylcholine antagonists. Contain atropine and scopolamine, used to dilate the pupil; speed up the heart; dry up saliva and gastric secretions, and to treat organophosphorous and mushroom poisoning & motion sickness.
Oakeley, Dr. H.F. (2013). Medicines from RCP plants label list 5-2013.docx.

POM atropine, scopolamine

Nomenclature

Syn.= Mandragora vernalis

Other use

Poison: In a battle over Carthage (200BC) Hannibal used mandrake- laced wine to drug African warriors then returned to ambush and kill them as they slept.
Stewart A.(2009) Wicked Plants. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. 106

The Romans believed mandrake could cure demonic possession: ancient Greeks used it in love potions as the root resembled a male sexual organ.
Stewart A.(2009) Wicked Plants. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. 106

Poison:In Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet the friar gives Juliet a mandrake sleeping potion to feign death
Stewart A.(2009) Wicked Plants. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. 106

Ancient civilisations thought the bifurcated, hairy root resembled a person
Stewart A.(2009) Wicked Plants. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. 105

Toxicity

Contains Atropine, hyoscamine,scopolamine which slow down the nervous system and induce coma.
Stewart A.(2009) Wicked Plants. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. 106

Geographical distribution

  • Europe, Southeastern Europe, Italy
  • Europe, Southeastern Europe, Yugoslavia

Mandragora officinarum L.

Family: SOLANACEAE
Genus: Mandragora
Species: officinarum L.
Common names: Common Mandrake; Devil's Apple; Devil's Candle
Pharmacopoeia Londinensis name: Mandragora
Distribution summary: Italy, Yugoslavia
Habit: Perennial
Hardiness: H5 - Hardy; cold winter
Garden status: Currently grown
Garden location: Europe & Mediterranean (E), Classical Europe & Middle East (I), Pharmacopoeia Londinensis 1618 'Seeds & Grains' (HSE 8), Pharmacopoeia Londinensis 1618 'Fruit' (HSE 4), Plants in pots (POT), Poisons garden (PETO)
Flowering months: March
Reason for growing: Medicinal, other use, toxic, prescription only medicine


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