MANDRAGORA OFFICINARUM, THE TRUE MANDRAKE – a plant of history, medicine, mythology and magic. It has a reputation for being hard to grow, and the seeds are considered to be difficult to germinate, but this is not so, provided you follow some very strict rules. The first rule is the hardest to put into effect, and the most important.
1: Plant your seeds by December 1st, each one in an individual pot. Since most seed companies have not started sending out their catalogues by December 1st, this means you need to contact the companies much earlier. As the seeds are ripe in July or August, email various companies asking for fresh seeds; say you want to plant them by December 1st. Stress that you do not want old seeds left over from the previous year; you want fresh seeds produced this year. They can be planted as soon as they arrive, from August onwards; there is no need to refrigerate, soak or striate.
2: It is very important to place the pots on a surface where water can drain away immediately. Do not stand in saucers or trays, which would retain water and rot the seed. Do not overwater. They seem to do better if the pots are placed outside rather than in a greenhouse; the cold, rain, hail, frost and snow will not harm them, and may in fact stimulate them to germinate. (The one exception is constant rain; if the soil in the pot is constantly very wet, the seed will rot.) If outside, protect from birds, foxes etc; a piece of chicken wire folded around the group of pots like a cage, is useful.
3: From the beginning of February onwards, check for germinated seedlings daily. Remove each germinated seedling to a place of safety in order to protect from snails, and grow on like any other seedling. If you particularly want a straight root, remember to use a disproportionately large plant pot.
4: When ready to plant out, harden off thoroughly as this will help to deter snails. Plant in a well-drained, open position. The use of slug pellets is definitely recommended if the plant is to survive. Do not plant anywhere near a vegetable plot where the leaves or fruits of the mandrake might be picked and eaten accidentally. All parts of the mandrake are poisonous.
5: The leaves will die down in June or July, and the plant will become dormant. Mark its location clearly. It is not a good idea to transplant mandrakes, so choose their position carefully.
6: The following year, the young plant will put out new leaves probably from February onwards; as it gets older, the new leaves will gradually appear earlier, possibly even in December. Snails are not usually around in mid-winter, but watch out for them and when they arrive, that is the time to get out the slug pellets for as long as necessary.
7: The plant may take 15 to 20 years to produce flowers and seeds. The flowers will bloom in February; it helps seed formation to pollinate by hand. The flowers will not be damaged by frost. Seeds may not be produced the first year. The ‘apples’ will be ready in July; do not pick until they are starting to turn slightly yellow, and soften slightly.
8: If you move house, remember to tell the buyer about the plant and how to care for it. These plants are precious, and should not simply be pulled out and thrown away by some new owner who has no appreciation for them.