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Black mandrake flower blooming in my basement 030515Mandragora officinarum var. autumnalis
Black Mandrake
This native of Southern Europe and long-time resident in many a witch's garden has a great variety of magickal uses. It has been part of flying ointments, made into poppets, worn in the cap for protection and love, carried for fertility, and consumed to induce love or lust. One of the baneful herbs, this Saturn plant is sacred to Hekate, but it is also associated with Diana, and Aphrodite as well as Mercury (apparently because of the androgynous shape of the root).

Black mandrake's flowers are purple instead of white, as in M. officinarum (var. vernalis). The supposed difference in root color does not seem to hold true.  This is also called Autumn Mandrake because it flowers in the fall instead of the summer, as does white mandrake (which is also known as Spring Mandrake [=vernalis]).  The flowers die and turn into small yellow or orange fruits that some people make into a liqueur; apparently the ripe fruits do not have the same alkaloids as other parts of the plant. Information on alkaloid content is contradictory.  Some say the leaves are safe, but an article described 15 people who had been hospitalized for eating the leaves, which they thought were spinach. The thick roots definitely contain tropanes, the same substances as in henbane and other nightshades, so don't chew them, as some sources recommend.  The tropanes, which are deliriants, connect this plant to Saturn. Clearly, this plant
has lots of possibilities. Also known as Autumn Mandrake and Female Mandrake. Packet comes with growing sheet. Check out the beautiful root of a two-year-old plant a customer grew. Top

How to grow: I have had good luck germinating these seeds by soaking them in cold water in the fridge for two weeks.  Replace the water with new *cold* water daily to wash away the anti-germination chemicals that leach from the seed.  I use an old vitamin bottle for this.  At the end of two weeks, plant in Jiffy-7 pellets with kelp solution, as described in general growing tips.  Don't plant any seeds that are floating after 24 hours; throw them out.  Another method is to plant them as usual in a Jiffy-7 soaked in kelp solution and then put the Jiffy-7s seeds and all in the fridge for 4-6 weeks, covered lightly with the kind of plastic bag groceries come in.  The fridge should be on the cold side, 41 F, or put them in the bottom toward the back. Then take them out to germinate.  The idea is to imitate snowmelt.  I have gotten them to germinate both ways, but the cold water method uses less fridge room. Or sow on Winter Solstice (see the Solstice Sowing page).  Top

Mike guards mandrake babies
They are slow to come up, but they will.  Make sure they stay moist but not sopping and do not put them in direct sunlight.  They do not come up all at once, like the seeds of bedding plants do.  These are seeds of wild plants, so their germination is staggered.   Plant in partial shade in rich soil. Add peat to the soil to make it more acidic.  If planting in a pot, make your own potting soil from 2 parts peat, 2 parts sand, and 1 part loam. Although the babies really seek out the sun, keep the plants in light shade (perhaps morning sun & afternoon shade, or just dappled shade). Fertilize regularly.  A foliar spray of a solution of liquid kelp and fish meal is good, and a fertilizer for roots really makes a huge difference (I tried Rootone this year). They don't like being wet, but they will become dormant if they don't get enough water.  Check the undersides of the leaves for aphids regularly, and use Safer Insecticidal Soap to get rid of them if they turn up. I have noticed that if you let a wet mandrake leaf touch the soil, it will generally get sick and fall off, so be careful when you water them to water the soil, not the plant. Top

Once you get a mandrake going, you can propagate it by dividing its tubers in the late autumn. It's winter hardy only in zones 8-11, the Deep South and the Northwest.  Farther north, try growing on the south side of the house against the wall and either put them in a cold frame in the winter or keep them in a pot and take them into the garage or basement for the winter (don't water while the plant is dormant). For a pot, use one of the long kind usually sold as rose pots or plant several together in a large pot, so that they have plenty of room to grow down. The root can get over four feet long.

The plant seems to sense when the root is getting near the bottom of the pot and quits growing; the leaves become weak and fall off. I had some in a very large pot, but they still stopped growing at a certain point. When I dug them up, I found that the end of the root was an extremely long thread that had obviously hit the bottom. Cramped roots become spirals. Planting in lengths of sewer pipes or garbage cans with holes in the bottom might be a way to remedy this. Planting in the ground is better if you have good soil, but it is very difficult to dig up the root without breaking it. Even turning the soil out of a pot all in one piece and gently pushing away the dirt resulted in a broken root or two. The plant probably uses this brittle root strategy to propagate itself, since pieces of root will make a new plant. One possibility is to dig a good deep hole for your plant and fill it with a fine soil mix that will make digging up easier. Then water very heavily just before you dig up the root. This will allow it to come free more easily. I have done this with other plants and will try it with mandrake next season.

After one season of growth, you get a nice root about finger-length, a good size for work. Not all roots are forked, but most are.  You can keep them fresh in the fridge wrapped in a slightly dampened paper towel inside an open baggie. Or you can put them in a jar of alcohol to preserve them, or dry them in a dehydrator. Don't put them in the microwave to dry, like you can with flowers; they will get ruined. They lose a substantial amount of weight and volume being dried. To get fruits, the plant has to be able to go through the winter without going dormant, a tough call in the US--perhaps in the Pacific Northwest. Without flowers, you won't get fruits. If you do get fruits, let them ripen fully before harvesting to get the best seeds.

You can also cut the roots and plant them to make more plants for the following year. In fall, cut the root into 1-2 inch long pieces. On each piece, cut the upward part straight across, and cut the lower part on an angle. Dip in rooting hormone and plant in soil in a sheltered spot or in a pot. Cover with sand. These will grow into new plants the following spring.

A note about mandrake seed viability: in the past, before I was buying and selling seeds, I got black mandrake seeds a couple times from seed retailers. Each time almost all the seeds were completely dead. I thought this seed must be very short-lived. Not so. Back in September I found some old packets of this seed under my desk. They had apparently been knocking around down there for the past 18 months and sure weren't being stored optimally. I thought what the heck and started to soak them. I soaked them for 3 weeks because I didn't have time to plant them after two. Well, they are germinating, so I guess that these seeds are a bit hardier than I thought. This also means that this seed will germinate out of season (it's November as I write). Top 

Mandragora autumnalis
Black Mandrake
5 seeds $5.50

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