I read about mandrake years before I met one. It crops up in folklore as a plant possessed of great powers, warranting a desire to gather them despite also, apparently, possessing the ability to kill you with a piercing shriek. To avoid this fate, it was recommended that they be pulled, plant to root, from the earth by a dog. Sadly the dog would swiftly meet his maker but so long as the human properly blocked up their ears, death could be avoided.
Here we see a 12th century illustration of the dog-harvesting tactic from the Harley Manuscript. The mandrake root is depicted as having human-form. This was common and a look at the root of mandrake plants quickly reveals why - they often have several limb-like sections which have an uncanny humanoid character.
Unfortunately, lacking a dog (or even an unpopular acquaintance not well versed in folklore), my meeting with a mandrake did not become more intimate than a view of its leaves. I was lucky enough to be given a special introduction last year by a friend who works as a gardener in the Oxford Botanic gardens. I love the mandrake factoid on the name sign...
As I hope you can glimpse from my photos, the plant has extraordinary presence. It looks both lushly delicious and dripping with poison.
Plants of the Gods (Shultes, Hofmann and Ratsch, 1992) informs us that the scopolamine contained within the plant gives it active hallucinogenic properties. The authors link this, rightly or wrongly, to associations with witchcraft, especially so-called 'flying ointment' which was supposedly rubbed into the genitals. As fun as this sounds, I'm fairly confident it is not likely as historical fact (see Hutton and Letcher), but what the heck - I like the idea.
This connection with witchcraft is evident in the Boscastle Witchcraft museum, where they have a case displaying both roots and artwork dedicated to the plant.
It was here that my inspiration for a new painting formed, mainly out of a desire to have such an image in my own house.
So here is my mandrake, a female, looking rather gentle in her slumber within the earth, along with some mandrake folklore...
In the dark ages, it was believed that mandrake would grow under a gallows where the semen of a dying man fell, and it came to be known as 'gallows man' in German.
It was said that the plant would hide during the day, but shine, star-like at night.
The golden fruiting bodies are also called Apples of Love. In the bible (so Wikipedia tells me, my bible knowledge not being all that it could be), the plant is used to aid fertility.
I have heard this elsewhere in books on folklore. It made this beautiful plant all the more special to me as, the day after I first met one in the deep green leaf-flesh, I found out I was pregnant with my daughter Minka. The plant-meeting felt auspicious, and I hoped it was a good omen for my womb and it's little golden fruit. And so it was.