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Shakespeare’s play, Romeo and Juliet, talks about the shrieking mandrake while Henry IV and Henry VI use the word mandrake as an insult. These very real plants took on legendary qualities due in part to the chemicals in their makeup which make them useful for anesthetics. Our guest this week is an expert in historical plants and historical methods of growing them and we are delighted this week to welcome Michael Brown to the show, the self-styled Historic Gardner, to share with us about the history of mandrakes.  

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Michael Brown is a retired Head Gardener and College Lecturer in Horticulture who now runs the website Historic Gardner in the UK. He is the author of multiple books on gardening through history including A Guide to Medieval Gardens: Gardens in the Age of Chivalry which talks about todays topics of mandrake plants. As a historian, Michael provides talks, displays and advice on gardening through history from the Romans to modern times, and provides history consultation for the National Trust and English Heritage sites. Learn more about his work and explore other historic plants at http://www.historicgardener.co.uk/

I’ll be asking Michael Brown about:

  • What were mandrakes used for during Shakespeare’s lifetime? 
  • In many drawings from the 16th century, the roots of the mandrake is drawn as a person. Does the real mandrake root look like a person? 
  • Are mandrakes used for medicine?  
  • …and more!

Resources You Can Use to Learn More:

The Cloisters Garden Museum at the MET in New York


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Mandrake Root 1583 image from Rembert Dodoens
Dodoens, Rembert, 1583. Stirpium historiae pemptades sex sive libri XXX. Antverpiæ, ex officina Christophori Plantini. (scanned from Reprint 1979, Uitgeverij de Forel, Nieuwendijk (Netherlands). Source

Mandrake plants have male and female forms

The male and female mandrake plants have similar roots and leaves, but will bloom with different color flowers at different times of year.

Flowers of the female mandrake plant, blooming in the Fall. Photo was taken by the owner, tato grasso (sic), in November 2006. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.Source

Mandrake that Deceives

There is a variant of mandrake plant called Bryony, White Bryony, or fake/false mandrake, that is also given the name “English mandrake” because it grows natively in Europe and prolifically in England. It is like a vine, much like Kudzu or Virginia creeper. It will spread out and take over as a ground cover. It is very aggressive and invasive plant, listed as a noxious plant here in the US. All parts of the plant are highly toxic to humans, and it takes only 40 berries to kill and adult human. Stay far away from this one!

Mandrake roots are said to resemble human form naturally, but as Michael shares in this episode, it was not uncommon for devious individuals to propagate this belief by carving mandrake roots into human shapes before replanting them in the dirt for others to discover. This is a mandrake root resembling human form, dating to England from 1501-1700. This image is from the Wellcome Trust This file comes from Wellcome Images, a website operated by Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation based in the United Kingdom. Refer to Wellcome blog post (archive). | It is presumed by the podcast host, Cassidy Cash, that this root was carved to look like a human, but is listed with the attribution of “unknown maker” by Wellcome Images, so it is unclear the provenance of this particular artifact. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license. Source
Mandrake (Mandragora officinarum) from Tacuinum Sanitatis manuscript (ca. 1390) | Public Domain| Source