Wildflowers in Italy – The Magical Mandrake Plant

The mandrake plant is a lovely autumn wildflower, but watch out.  Besides being poisonous, it’s said to possess strange and mystical powers.

My favorite mandrake myth is that the plant emits a horrible shriek when uprooted, causing madness and death to those foolish enough to have dug it up.  To solve this, medieval sorcerers advised that a dog should be used to uproot the mandrake plant, by tying a cord around the plant and the other end to the dog’s tail –  then the root collector makes a run for it.  The dog would die upon hearing the shriek, but the collector would be safely out of earshot.  I guess the idea of being man’s best friend is a one way street.

The root of the mandrake plant is said to resemble the human form, and in medieval times the root was highly valued as a magical talisman, endowing its owner with supernatural powers. I’ve seen the mandrake plant in bloom many times during my wildflower walks in Sicily, and enjoyed the bright purple blossoms.  But I’d never seen the root.  

mandrake - mandragora autumnalis

On my way home recently, I spied a mandrake plant in bloom at the edge of the village and was curious to see the human shape of the root, and decided to dig it up.   I also liked the idea of being endowed with supernatural powers.  Armed with a spade, rubber gloves, and my camera, I briefly thought about wearing earmuffs, but decided it was too hot, and too strange – I must keep up appearances in the neighborhood.  Anyway, if I really believed that deadly shriek story, I’d just enlist the “help” of my neighbor’s odious dog, whose most endearing trait is barking incessantly from sunset to dawn. 

After digging for a few minutes, I had unearthed 3 inches of mud and gotten to the top of root of mandrake plantthe thick root, which was, quite literally, firmly rooted.  After I’d dug down 6 inches, encountering several rocks along the way, I’d ripped holes in my rubber gloves, gashed my thumb and had thick mud oozing from under my fingernails. I was sweating profusely and my legs ached from squatting.  It was time to yank.

I positioned my feet on either side of the plant, gripped the top of the mandrake root with both hands and yanked with all my might.  There was a loud snap, followed by a piercing shriek – mine – as I fell over backwards in the mud, clutching the upper half of the mandrake root.

So much for appearances.

The mandrake root may or may not have a shape that resembles the human form, but Imandrake plants in Sicily know longer cared.  My hopes for becoming an Italian Harry Potter dashed, I hobbled home to change my clothes, leaving my muddy shoes to dry in the sun.

Where to find the mandrake plant in bloom:

The mandrake plant (mandragora autumnalis) blooms from September to December in the south of Italy.  When walking in Sicily, it can commonly be found along the rocky seaside path at the Vendicari coastal reserve.

Read similar stories:  Antipasto: Delivering a Goat in Tuscany  or head further south and learn How Not to Restore a House in Sicily

12 thoughts on “Wildflowers in Italy – The Magical Mandrake Plant

  1. HAHAHAHAHA,,,,,,,,,,,that was hysterical…The Mandrake I was told should be left alone , never touch it, witches and
    people who deal with evil only are immune to its powers…
    makes one sit back and think Anita, you dug it up and pulled it out and yet survived HUMMMMMMMMMMMMMMM.
    Any thing happen around the full moon at your house?
    Great story!

  2. Hi
    I enjoyed your story – it was well written, humorous and original. Much better than the rehash of old tales about the mandrake that one reads. I collect mandrake material from all over the world and was very impressed with your pictures too.
    Many thanks

    1. Thank you Mel, glad to hear that you enjoyed this post. As a collector of mandrake material from around the world, perhaps you are half mad as well! Anita

  3. Well yes definitely half mad probably a little bit more than half .But I am one of those half mad English gardeners .We put on a white hat pick up a trowel and we become eccentric a much more colourful word than mad .Ha Ha
    I was wondering do you know of any gardening societies or seed collectors I could contact that might be able to supply me with seeds or roots of wild Sicilian mandrake ?I don’t have one in my collection .
    Obviously not the one you cut your finger on because it has probably got a taste for blood .Ha Ha

    1. Mel-

      Ah yes, a gardener. That explains a lot. I have recently managed to plant several mandrake plants in my garden, which I took from young shoots (no blood was shed.) Perhaps because Sicilians tend to be superstious, I have never encountered a cultivated mandrake plant or seed. When I get some seeds from my plants, I will be happy to send you some-one plant appears to making its little yellow fruits so seeds should be forthcoming. I’ll keep you posted.

  4. Hi Anita
    This is an example of world famous Sicilian generosity thank you very much I would love some seeds .Would you please contact me on my personal email address so I can send you my postal details .Also I would like to talk to you about how you are growing your plant and also a little local mandrake folklore .This is not strictly relevant to this site topic

  5. Hello Anita,
    That is a very nice story 🙂
    May I ask for any information where I could get some mandrake seeds for my garden 🙂 Thank you very much in advance 🙂

    1. Glad you enjoyed this post, Iva. I have never seen mandrake seeds for sale, at least not in Italy. I can try and save some seeds for you the next time they flower – let me know where to send them!

  6. Anita,
    I enjoyed your story and have always been fascinated by the Mandrake plant. I recently had surgery and would have liked to have some of those roots for their pain relief properties. But here in the States that’s not really possible. Still on the hunt though, lol.
    My mom and I are going to try to find some seeds to plant a few. Great story and we’ll written .

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