Growing Mandrake — Beyond the Basics

Mandrake Fruiting Plant

Growing mystical plants requires a certain amount of consciousness on the part of the gardener, and for best results one allows the plants to call the shots.  This is only to the extent of one’s willingness to let go of control.  One never really knows where it will all go.  Simply wishing the plant to do well seems to be the best approach. 

Mandrake Root
Mandrake Root

I never had much luck with growing Mandrake (Mandragora officinarum) until I checked with people from where the plant grows in the wild.  They told me it grows near rocks in very alkaline soil.  So I started planting my 2 and 3-year-old seedlings (that had been living in pots) into a specially prepared bed that had a good deal of ground limestone and oyster shell dug in.  I placed every plant at the north side of a rock (rocks from the very local creek, laid on the surface).  Around the transplants I scattered more coarse, sharp sand and white pumice as a means to increase drainage at the crown.  Then I started to have some luck!

As I write this it is late winter and the mandrake patch is again alive.  One of the largest plants already is emerging, primary leaves like blunt-fingered hands raised up in prayer, piercing through the sand.  The leaves part to show a cluster of nascent flowers, already glowing distantly  purple.  The moist sand around the crown is filled with weedlings which I pull out or sever with my knife.  A few mullein volunteers are vigorously excluded as the mullein would soon overpower the mandrake. Right around the crown of the emergent mandrake  I remove some necrotic tissue, blackened stems from last year’s growth.  These would only invite insects and slugs.  So then the clean sand is firmed up around the crown of the plant and tamped securely.  A cedar wood stake is pushed in, slanted over the plant, to mark and protect it.  All this is the main upkeep required in early winter. 

The delicate transition from potted seedling to outdoor-growing plant is best accomplished while the plant is in vegetative phase, not dormancy.  Gradual acclimatization is very important, and actually burying the potted plant near the proposed planting site and allowing it to accommodate for a week or two before barerooting and planting may significantly improve success rates. 

Therefore the best time for planting is in the early spring, when the plant can still be expected to hold on to its green leaves for a month or more while the root digs in.  Then, as always, it will succumb to summer dormancy.  Fruiting plants will last somewhat longer, and even after the largest leaves dry up and curl back, the fruits make a buxom display, first green-skinned, then yellow.  The scent they emit attracts all kinds of takers, including ‘possum and skunk if not the black cat of the local wisewoman.  I’ve lost several and have learned my lesson.  One is well-advised to pick in the green, turgid stage and allow the fruits to safely ripen on an indoor windowsill.  I’ve heard that shepherds in the Middle East do the same.  One would think this practice might produce immature seed ,  but actually fruits picked green do produce mature seed.  It takes a little cure-time. 

What you do with your mandrake is up to you.  The plants themselves seem to be able to bring up lingering sins of the soul, what are known in Vedic terminology as “vasanas,” tendencies toward avarice, pride, jealousy, fear.  Like I said in the beginning, it requires consciousness to grow them without being overly affected.  Since I know the psychic pitfalls, I can avoid falling into them.  On a more gut level, I’ve eaten mandrake fruits and come to no harm.  They taste like a cross between a tomatillo and a withered apple ripened on the twig, neither picked nor pecked, shriveled in the sun, developing a deep alcoholic sweetness emitting a beguiling autumnal aroma just shy of rot. I advise against consuming the seeds, though, they are serious repositories of alkaloids mandragorine and scopalamine, which are not fun. Besides, the preciousness of the seeds is in the planting.  The fresh seeds may be immediately planted in Cactus mix and set to the warm shade.  They will germinate in about 8 months time.  Dried seeds take a whole year to come up.  Someone once told me they refrigerated the seeds in pure water for some weeks before planting.  I tried this, and found that it did reduce germination time.  Place the fresh or dried seeds in a well-lidded (and labeled!) jar of cold willow tea (directions on how to make this in “The Medicinal Herb Grower,”) in the refrigerator for up to three weeks, shaking daily.  Then, plant the seeds 1/2 inch deep in sand in a flat positioned about 18 inches below  an 8-bulb T-5 grow light.  Tamp securely and water once a day.  Leave the light going night and day, maintaining a temperature of 70 to 75 degrees F.  App. 80% germination occurs within 3 weeks.

Mandrake Fruiting Plant

You can read more on how to grow Mandrake in my book The Medicinal Herb Grower, A Guide for Cultivating Plants that Heal Volume 1.