Even a familiar plant could develope a supernatural reputation if its habits were sufficiently bizzare. An example of this kind of elaborate embroidery involves the mandrake, or mandragora, a small perennial herb common throughout the Mediterranean region.
Like other nightshades, the mandrake derives its reputation for magical power partly from toxicity. This potent herb can kill the unwary, although it has also served as an important source of therapeutic medicine. Adding to the mandrake's mystique is the appearance of its root. Thick and tuberous, it can be imagined to look like a little human being, a coincidence that deeply impressed some contemporaries of the ancient Greek botanist Theophrastus. They were the "root cutters" of the day. The herbalists of thier day, these root cutters supplied herbs to physicians. There was even more to add to the mandrake's magical power appeal. It is a plant that phosphoreses. Sometimes at night, chemical substances in its berries react with the dew to give a pale light. A phenomenon that today is explained by science oue ancestors attributed to spirits and magical forces.
Flaviuos Josephus, a Jewish general, statesman, and historian of the first century A.D., described the perils of harvesting the mandrake. While its glow makes it easy to find, the herb would shrink back whenever approuched, and merely touching it could prove fatal. One way to collect the herb was to dig around it carefully until only a small portion of the root remained covered. The collector would then leash a dog to the root and walk away. The dog would pull the root free in a frantic effort to get back to its masters side. But in exchange for the dogs death , according to Josephus, the master obtained an infallible charm against demons. Other people said the mandrake protected against battle wounds, cured all diseases, brought luck in love, promoted fertility, gauranteed perfect marlsmanship, and unearthed hidden treasures.
A remarkable thing about plant magic is how it runs through many periods of human experiance. As long as ignorance kept people enslaved to superstition, the idea of magical plants remainded powerful. Though nations sneered at the credulity of thier neighbors-and new generations laughed at the ignorance and gullibility of the old-each in turn wove its own new fantastic tissue of herbal taboos, tales, and lore. The tradition of the mandrake root, for instance, kept a firm hold on peoples imagination, if not belief, for many centuries. "Go and catch a falling star, get with child a mandrake root," were among a long list of impossible tasks set forth by the 17th-century poet John Donne.