Mandrakes belong to a large family of the plants known as the Solanaceae (nightshade) family. There are several different species within the mandragora genus, though the one most commonly used within witchcraft is Mandragora Officinarum. They have oval shaped leaves, small flowers that vary in colour from species to species (the autumnalis variety has quite lovely purple flowers), and fruit that resemble tomatoes (another Solanaceae).
Great swathes of folklore surround the mandrake, as far back as Ancient Egypt where a myth recounts the goddess Sekhmet going on a great rampage against humanity. The gods were unable to reason with her, so they gave her wine with boiled mandrake root which knocked her out. The roots will often be split into two giving them a humanoid appearance (this led to stories of the roots looking like people) and it is said that anyone who hears the mandrake scream when it is uprooted will die. This led to elaborate rituals involving dogs pulling up the plant or loud instruments, such as horns, being played at the moment of uprooting (I will admit my slight disappointment when I uprooted my first mandrake when it didn’t even wail).
Another key feature of the mandrake’s appearances in folklore is its uses in the flying ointments of witches. Mandrake roots- like many of the nightshade plants- contain chemicals called alkaloids, the main ones being scopolamine, atropine and hyoscyamine. These are what give the plant its mind altering effects. Interestingly (or at least I find it interesting…) atropine was named after Atropos, the fate who severed the thread of life, yet it is on the World Health Organization’s list of necessary drugs for its use in anaesthesia and as an antidote to organophosphate poisoning (think pesticides like DDT and Parathion).
In the past mandrakes were often valued for their medicinal properties as well, generally as anaesthetics (remember that myth with Sekhmet?). They are mentioned in the Egyptian medical papyri and the Greek physician, Dioscorides, recommended giving mandrake wine to a patient before surgery. Both Pliny the Elder and Galen recorded the effectiveness of mandrakes in medicine, though Galen warned of the dangers of overdose.
During the Middle Ages mandrake roots grew so valuable that conmen shaped the roots of white bryony plants and sold them on as mandrakes to gullible customers (this is probably why recipes for sleep drugs like dwale list white bryony in their ingredients). Carrying a root will bring the bearer good luck and prosperity and the human-like shape of the root made it a common ingredient in love spells.
Growing mandrakes can be difficult as they take an absolute age to germinate (do not be surprised if it takes months). Most sources will recommend soaking the seeds (stick them in a small mesh bag in a small box of water in the fridge and change the water daily- just in case I always label the box TOXIC). I personally soak mine for around two weeks to a month (though some sources recommend soaking for up to six months) and then plant them, two to a small flower pot. Once the seedlings get to a height of a couple of inches repot them into larger pots that give them more root space (the root is the important bit and they need a lot of space). The soil needs to be aerated and kept fairly moist- not too wet and not too dry. Mine is currently sulking as I let the soil in its pot get too damp so it dropped its leaves and went dormant. Don’t worry too much if that happens- check the root, definitely, but if all seems in order replant and leave it to grow back. After a month or so you ought to see new leaves. As plants native to the Mediterranean they are quite happy in shady to fairly sunny areas.
If you choose to use mandrake in flying ointments etc. be aware that these plants are highly toxic and deserve your utmost respect. Do not overdose; a small amount will do plenty. The alkaloids can cause more than just hallucinations- they can cause malfunctions in your autonomic nervous system as well as give you serious diarrhoea. To translate: they can cause problems with both your breathing and heart rate and you probably already know the last one. I have heard of people who took datura (also a nightshade) and ended up having to consciously control their own breathing until the effects subsided- datura contains the same chemicals as mandrakes so it’s not too much of a leap to assume that similar symptoms might arise from mandrake overdose.
Plus, and I really hope that this bit’s unnecessary, please don’t use it at all if you are pregnant. Even if we ignore the stuff about the nervous system and what it can do to f***up your digestive system, it may lead to birth defects.