Mandrake

Step 2 of 4

Growth

On top of a cabinet in Rijksmuseum Boerhaave - Photography Cees de Jonge

On top of a cabinet in Rijksmuseum Boerhaave - Photography Cees de Jonge

This is the mandrake root in Rijksmuseum Boerhaave, here standing on top of a wooden cabinet in their depot.

The mandrake is a non-descript plant that is hard to replant. Throughout history, both its location and its harvesting process have been shrouded in mystery and surrounded by fantasy and folklore. In Germany, for instance, the mandrake is called the ‘gallows man’ – a reference to the idea that the mandrake grows only in places where there were once gallows. The plant supposedly grew out of corpse fluid, or the urine or semen of a man who was wrongly convicted to death.

The harvest of the root is surrounded with unique and at times hilarious rituals as well. The ear muffs that J.K. Rowling makes her protagonists wear are not a coincidence. In order to escape death during the harvest, dogs – preferably black ones – and pieces of meat were deployed. The dog got a piece of rope tied around its neck, with the other end wound carefully around the mandrake root. Then, at a safe distance, the dog was lured away with the piece of meat, thereby pulling the root out of the ground.