Mandrake

(An edited version of this column appeared in the June 8, 1998 Buffalo News.)

    While hiking, it is always a pleasure for me to come upon a colony of mandrakes, their deeply-divided umbrella-like leaves swaying in the dappled sunlight that filters through the forest canopy.

    This foot tall herb is also called May apple; however, that name seems ill-suited to this region. Here they flower in mid to late May but only develop their single egg-shaped yellow berry -- their apple -- in August or September, yet I know no one who refers to them as August apples or September apples.

    You must seek out the mandrake's flower as it is well hidden beneath the green umbrella. I should say umbrellas for usually only the plants whose stem divides to support two leaves produce these flowers. Drooping from the stem division, the single blossom has six to nine waxy white petals.

    By late this month the flower will have wilted to be replaced by a green berry that ripens and grows slowly over the summer to become a yellow ping pong ball. The appearance of this fruit gives the mandrake still another name -- wild lemon.

    The ripe fruit is edible and some people like it. Although it is sweet, I find it unsavory. You may wish to taste it yourself as my palate is questionable and major figures have commended it. Captain John Smith of the Virginia Colony wrote of it as a "pleasant wholesome fruit much like a lemond" (sic) in 1612 and seven years later Samuel Champlain, introduced to mandrake by the Hurons, said it tasted like a fig. In Stalking the Wild Asparagus Euell Gibbons provides a May apple marmalade recipe and recommends adding the apple's juice to lemonade.

    Be warned, however: this fruit is stongly laxative. Even more important: the leaves and roots are poisonous. Early explorers recorded how despondent Huron women committed suicide by eating the roots of mandrake or hemlock. Some people develop a rash from just touching the stem.

    Despite these toxic qualities, herbalists continue to use extracts of the tuberous root. Mrs. M. Grieve, writing in 1931, pronounced the extracted podophyllin "a medicine of most extensive service,... for all hepatic complaints eminently suitable and the beneficial results can hardly be exaggerated." She cautions against large doses that can cause nausea and vomiting and even prove fatal, but used with care she pronounces it "a powerful medicine exercising an influence on every part of the system, stimulating the glands to healthy action." The litany of complaints treated includes dropsy, biliousness, dyspepsia, rheumatism and constipation.

    This same podophyllin and another mandrake-derivative, etoposide, have been found by modern pharmacologists to be useful in the treatment of skin cancers and venereal warts. They inhibit cell growth by blocking both RNA and DNA synthesis. Because mandrake is the sole known source of these drugs, ecologist Richard Brewer has pointed out the decrease in opportunities for commercial cultivation "every time the gene pool of May apple is diminished through the loss of another forest."

    Mandrake colonies are clones rooted from a single plant over several decades. Meanwhile box turtles, white-footed mice and gray squirrels eat the fruit and pass the seeds through their digestive systems, in this way carrying them to new locations and fertilizing them at the same time.

    Like so many other plant names, mandrake was misassocated with an unrelated European herb of that name by immigrants to this country. Still its strange and forbidding properties connect it to the supposed magical powers of that Old World plant.

    Look for those lovely green umbrellas the next time you walk through the open woods of this region.