Possibly one of the quintessential herbs of The Craft, The Mandrake has a long history and association with Witches and Magic. Mandragora officinarum, is a member of the Solanacea family (Nightshade etc) and its magical lore is endless. Most of this can be found online and there is a veritable feast on info to sink your teeth into regarding Mandrakes. I especially recommend a trip to the Witchcraft Museum in Boscastle, they have a Mandrake Exhibit which happens to be one of my favourites!
I am not going to write paragraphs here only to repeat much of the lore and world-class info already available in some of the herbals etc, I do however want to talk about the trials and tribulations of growing these little beauties
Mandrake seeds are pretty easy to come by online. I paid about £5 for 5 offcianarum seeds (they ain’t cheap!). Do make sure what you are getting is Mandragora officinarum and not White Bryony (Bryonia alba) which is also known as English Mandrake.
I bought 2 packs (10 seeds) to ensure success as they are renowned for being tricky little critters to germinate and grow on!
When your seeds arrive the best method for ensuring germination is to place the seeds in a small pot with a lid and cover the seeds with rain or bottled mineral water and place in the fridge for 2 weeks. The water should be changed daily as the seeds produce a toxin which prevent germination. The water leaches this toxin out and the fridge reproduces the cold of winter so when the seeds come out of the fridge into ambient temperature they are fooled into thinking its spring. The seeds will float at first but may gradually sink during the two weeks (so don’t be alarmed).
After the two weeks you can sow your seeds into soil. I used specialist seed and cutting compost which you can get from any Garden Centre. To avoid unnecessary handling I also used ‘Peat Pots’ which are bio degradable plant pots which can be planted directly in the soil, this saves a huge amount of unnecessary handling of the plant and reduces risk of damage to the root (the bit I want intact!)
Germination should begin after a week or so…and if you are lucky you will probably find most (if not all) of your seeds will germinate providing you have followed the instructions above.
The seedlings are very susceptible to dampening off and rot which will wipe out many of your young seedlings if you’re not careful, so do not over water and certainly don’t let them sit in water. If you choose to use peat pots like me, the soil will not drain easily and a lot more moisture is retained than you realise. Let the little ones tell you when they need a drink, it really should be a lastminute.com job…when they start looking a little sad, give them a good drink. Water round the edge of the pot, trying to avoid getting the stem wet as much as possible and as always use rain water or bottled spring water as often as possible.
Once you see the first set of true leaves appear you are well on the home stretch, I had about five young plants at this stage growing healthily (a clumsy Cat reduced this down to three very quickly in one swift leap!)
Use a little common sense when it comes to growing on, if you have used peat pots you can drop them straight into a bigger pot full of soil (multi-purpose is ideal). I planted my final three in different ways. I planted one in a pot inside, one in a pot outside, and one straight in the ground. When it comes to pots think ahead, you are looking for a healthy root so use pots which are taller than they are wide. The two plants left outside were eaten by slugs almost instantly (it really was a case of here today and gone tomorrow!!) so if you know you have a slug problem I don’t advise planting outdoors at all…even if you don’t have a slug problem you probably will once they detect Mandrake, they seem to love it! So surround your plant with coarse grit or broken egg shells to deter the little gannets! Again use common sense, don’t plant out during a typical English autumn (Wet and windy) or winter (Bitterly cold and frosty). Treat these plants as nature treats them and they should be happy!
So from 10 seeds, down to one plant. She grows happily now in the conservatory. Every Friday (Day of Venus – the planetary ruler of Mandrake hence their associations with Love Magic) I water her, speak to her and give her a little pinch of ‘Fish, Bone and Blood’ (easily available from most garden centres) and at Full Moon I give her a few drops of Milk. If I cut myself she gets a few drops of blood too which she seems to love (and I am always reminded of the Musical ‘Little Shop of Horrors’). Having her really has been a labour of love and just as much work and commitment as keeping a pet kitten or puppy but the wonderful thing about it is the bond I am building with the spirit of this plant before I have even got the finished product in my hand…Hopefully in a year or so’s time I will!
After her first year I took her out of her pot to check on her root. (N.B I think the dog on a lead is only required for Wild Mandrakes! And despite the advise given in the Harry Potter films I didn’t require ear muffs…there were no shrieks and my sanity remains as it was before I embarked on Mandrake Cultivation!)
Anyway, much to my delight she was growing beautifully, two wonderful long legs (a sign that the Mandrake spirit is a female one, Males apparently have a single tap-root with no forks) and with a few tweaks I can now begin the process of shaping her into a more human shape, but I think it will be a while before she is quite ready.
Any bits of root that break of or are intentionally removed can be replanted and they should grow new Mandrakes although I didn’t have much success with that so I just dried them and now keep them in a jar for later use.
So Good Luck all those who decide to try a grow their own Mandrake..look out for Part Two!!