American Mandrake (the photo is from my yard) is a small, perennial herb found naturalized in damp woodlands, thickets, shady fields, and the edges of boggy meadows. It is native to the east coast from Quebec to Florida and west to Texas, and is cultivated elsewhere. Mandrake needs rich, damp soil and partial shade. It is a member of the Berberidaceae family, and common names include May Apple, Devil’s Apple, Hog-apple, Indian Apple, American Mandrake, American May Apple, Racoonberry, and Wild Lemon.
North American Indians valued the May Apple for its medicinal properties, and reportedly used it as an insecticide for their crops. I’ve read that they also used it to commit suicide. Early pioneers used the root extract for constipation.
One of the many herbs associated with witchcraft in folklore, mandrake was once called the “Witches’ Umbrella” and thought to be employed by them as a poison.
Mandrake has a solitary, pale green, unbranched stem. It grows up to 1 to 2 feet and is crowned with two leaves at maturity. The leaves are yellowish-green on top and paler underneath. The solitary, white, drooping flowers are somewhat fragrant and about 4 cm across. It has a yellowish berry like a Rosehip. The roots are long and horizontal, and a dark red-brown color. The root and rhizomes are dug in the fall or late summer, washed, cut into pieces and dried. The rhizome is said to be most active when it is beginning to shoot. The seeds and rind are not edible, and are also said to be poisonous. The fruit is non-poisonous and edible (sans seeds!) but I’ve never worked up the nerve to try one, so I can’t offer an opinion there.
The root contains a glycoside substance, podophyllotoxin, and an amorphous resin, podophylloresin, which are responsible for its purgative action. It also contains a yellow coloring matter, quercetin, sugar, starch and fat. Mandrake root has an unpleasant, bitter taste (or so I’ve been told) and strong, nauseating odor (which I can vouch for).
If you’re interested in terminology, the therapeutic actions of mandrake include: Cathartic, cholagogue, emetic, hepatic, sialagogue, tonic, and vermifuge.
Mandrake has been shown to have antitumor effects (including some success in the treatment of acute childhood leukemia at a children’s hospital in Tennessee: J. Heinerman, Science of Herbal Medicine: 136-137) and is used to treat venereal warts, scalp ringworm (tinea capitis), constipation, corns, headaches, indigestion, liver complaints, and worms (see warning below).
Warnings about American Mandrake:
The American Herbal Products Association Botanical Safety Handbook recommends the following labeling for Mandrake: “To be used only under the supervision of an expert qualified in the appropriate use of this substance.”
Mandrake has a low “therapeutic margin” (the dividing line between toxicity and non-toxicity) and should be used with caution. Consult a professional before using mandrake and never use more than the stated dose. The whole plant, apart from the ripe fruit, is highly poisonous in large doses. Excessive amounts of American Mandrake will produces nausea and vomiting, watery stools, and convulsions. It may also cause inflammation of the stomach and intestines, which has been known to prove fatal. Even in moderate doses it is a drastic purgative (causes bowel evacuation) with some cholagogue action (promotes the flow and discharge of bile into the duodenum by contracting the bile ducts, and produces purgation of the bowels). American Mandrake should not be used during pregnancy or lactation.