In the past, mandragora officinarum was used as a potent medicine surrounded more by superstition than fact. In modern herbalism, the medical use of the plant is limited to treating travel sickness, reducing bronchial secretions and as a pre-operative medication. Most of the supposed medical uses of mandragora officinarum have been dispelled and replaced with a warning that ingestion of too large a quantity of the plant can be fatal as the plant is poisonous.
The mandragora officinarum, or Mandrake as it is commonly referred to, is a native of Central and Southern Europe and is of the Solanaceae Juss family. It is characterized by a large rosette of dark green curled leaves and a thick taproot. The root sometimes splits into two and resembles a person, which is probably one reason why the plant became the subject of legend and superstition. The large purple flowers give way to small, tomato-like fruit, the seeds and flesh of which contain highly toxic alkaloids.
In ancient times, the mandrake was used pre- and post- surgery in order to cause a deep sleep due to its powers as a potent narcotic. It was thought to contain magical powers sufficient to cure mania, convulsions and depression and treat fertility problems when ingested, though even then, it was reputed to cause madness when taken in large doses. The root was also grated and the juice used topically to relieve rheumatism and ulcers.
Nowadays, it is known that the root of the mandragora officinarum causes delirium and hallucinations as well as depressing the parasympathetic system and having hypnotic qualities. The mandrake contains a high content of the tropane alkaloids mandragoran, hyoscyamine and scopolamine. Other plants containing these toxins are the Deadly Nightshade, or Belladona, and Hanbane. Some of the effects these alkaloids produce include dilated pupils, dry mouth, an increase in the heart rate, a reduction in the muscular movements of the intestinal tracts, urinary retention, hallucinations, seizures and coma.
Atropine and scopolamine are used in modern medicine. Atropine is used to dilate the pupils and increase the heart rate in some cases of heart failure and scopolamine is often used in the treatment of travel sickness. However, neither are ingested - the first is administered intravenously and the second as a patch. Some herbal remedies sold over-the-counter or by traditional medicine practitioners have been found to be contaminated with mandragora officinarum, which could produce severe and even dangerous side-effects.