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American mandrake, or mayapple, can be found growing on many forest floors.

Image by S.J. Krasemann/Photolibrary/Getty Images

American Mandrake, also known as hog apple and duck’s foot, is one of those plants with a long and colorful herbal history in the Americas. Historically, it’s been used as a medicine in treatments for disorders relating to the liver and bowels, as well as a cathartic. It’s important to note that there are two different types of mandrake; American and European mandrake are two similar but botanically unrelated plants.

The rootstock is typically the part of the plant which is used in medicine, and it can be fatal if taken in excessive dosages. Pregnant women should never ingest mandrake, as it can lead to potential birth defects in their unborn child. Its narcotic properties made it a readily available poison for many ancient societies. According to John Lust in The Herb Book, Native American tribes sometimes used mandrake root to commit suicide.

European mandrake is native to the Mediterranean region, and Pliny the Elder tells us its root was used by ancient surgeons as an anesthetic, and as a booster for fertility. Today, it is sometimes found in alternative medicines as a remedy for asthma and coughs. Like the American mandrake, the root can be poisonous. By the sixteenth century, mandrake had made its way to English medicinal gardens.

When it comes to folklore, mandrake gets pretty interesting. A number of medieval herbals, such as the Herbarium of Apuleius cite the use of mandrake root as a cure for demonic possession. It’s also recommended as a preventative against witchcraft. Certainly, this idea may be due in part to the notion that a few hundred years ago, illness was sometimes seen as evidence of demonic influence – use the mandrake, get rid of the demon, the illness goes away.

Mandrake became a popular ingredient in magic because the roots tend to bear a resemblance to the human figure – an early example of poppet magic in action. Maud Grieve states in A Modern Herbal that mandrake roots were often used to represent either a male figure with a beard, or a female with a head of bushy, wild hair.

She goes on to say that the plant was rumored to grow under a hangman’s gallows, and “it was believed to be death to dig up the root, which was said to utter a shriek and terrible groans on being dug up, which none might hear and live.” Fans of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books will recognize mandrake as the shrieking plants in Madame Sprout’s greenhouses.

Use mandrake in your home to ward off negative energy. Consider planting it around the perimeter of your property as a barrier, or place some under your doorstep for protection and fertility. Some hoodoo traditions recommend wrapping a whole mandrake root in a dollar bill and carrying it in your pocket for financial fortune.

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