A Penny for Poison: How I Coaxed the Mandrake

Those involved with plant sorcery will often talk about relationships. The plants are not mindless tools for our use. They can and do benefit our work in the world, but they do not exist solely to serve us. That is helpful to know when engaging in any type of spirit work, be it work with plants, ancestors, land devas, spirits of weather patterns, or any other number of unseen denizens. I’m glad that this has become a sort of given within the esoteric communities in recent years and it seems like this wisdom is transferring itself from the realm of deep learning to basic “street smarts.”

After we recognize that a relationship is required to perform effective work with spirits, the next step is figuring out exactly how those relationships are forged. This where things get tricky because we humans love to develop cookie-cutter methods for things that usually take a great deal of effort. And while I’m not keen on making things complicated for the sake of complication, I do think its important to give this your all. Spirits, like those of us currently inhabiting flesh-suits, are not monolithic. We all have individual interests, needs, and desires. While certain types of spirits can have likes and dislikes commonly attributed to them, we would be wise to treat them as we would any human who we wish to gain favor from. I used to think that this always meant performing specific rituals and repeated patterns of magic to gain a rapport.  That all changed in 2011 when I decided to begin the tricky task of growing mandrake in my home garden.

Mandrake (Mandragora officinarum) is a species of plant and a type of nightshade native to continental Europe, particularly the Mediterranean and the westernmost parts of eastern Europe. Most learned magic-workers know at least some lore about mandrake, which enjoys a rich history and mythos in the magical world. The root is a hallucinogen and is said to grant power, luck, prosperity, and access to the hidden realms of spirit. Obtaining a full, real, root of the plant is a prized goal among many plant sorcerers (and beware of internet sellers of this little curiosity because fraud is rampant).2


When I purchased my seeds I ordered 30 of them, thinking that if at least 5 or germinated that I’d be grateful. So I followed all of the directions in the most highly-recommended methods that were suggested across multiple sources. I spent days meticulously preparing my soil beds, getting my distilled water spray bottles, and getting the perfect mix of fertilizer alkaloids recommended specifically for the Madness Plant.

Well, mad I was because not only did I not even get 5 seeds germinated, but none of them germinated. Not a single one! Disappointing as it was, I chalked it up to first-timer ignorance and decided I’d try again a few months later towards the end of the summer (which for my area is supposed to be the ideal time for mandrake germination anyway). This time I tweaked a couple of the suggested methods. And once again, nothing. Not a single seed graced me with a single blessed germination. I was basically ready to give up at that point.

After my initial frustration subsided, I decided to try one more time. But this time I abandoned the constraints of the gardening science behind the germination and sought out answers in trance. Sitting in meditation while holding dried pieces of mandrake root in my hand, I dove into the inner planes of the mind and called upon the Mandragora spirit to come to me. I asked it if there were any particular things I could do to achieve success. I expected that if I were to get any answer in return, it would be of a mundane gardening variety.

Turns out, I did get an answer but it wasn’t of the gardening type. I had an instant flash of the plant spirit appearing before me asking for three specific things; pouring the first water for the seeds on a Monday, putting a drop of blood in the soil, and then burying three shinny pennies in the soil. This seemed odd to me since I couldn’t recall anything in the lore about the mandrake spirit asking for these things. To complicate things further, I wasn’t particularly keen on blood offerings, being rather averse to needles. But when my third batch of seeds came in the following spring I thought “what the heck” and gave it a try with all of the spirit’s requests fulfilled.

Just like my first attempt, I planted 30 seeds. Now, it is supposed to take at least a couple of months for any successful germination and sprouting to occur with this species of mandrake. To my complete shock, after just two weeks, I got 4 sprouts to my seeds. Success! I was thrilled that at least a few of them took off, especially so early. But as the days grew on they didn’t stop there. Day after day more seeds germinated and began shooting out of their pods in tiny sprouts. After a few weeks, I got 30 tiny sprouts. Yes, 30. Every single seed germinated and sprouted through the soil. An unheard of 100% success rate.

You could say that it was a mixture of luck and me finally compiling the correct factors to finally get these picky little seeds going. But you have to admit that having a 100% success rate after giving this unusual offering is interesting. Ever since then, I have always consulted the spirits of plants before engaging in physical cultivation work with them. I don’t always take full stock of my responses (or lack thereof), but when I do it is very rarely disappointing.

That is the story of how I coaxed the mandrake and how I learned to trust messages of spirits I’d like the aid of, no matter how unusual. It might not always be pretty and it might not always be your cup of tea, but it is useful and it does work. When it comes to working with the plant world, sometimes you have to be a great gardener. Sometimes you have to pay attention to the season, humidity, and the quality of water. And sometimes you just have to give a penny to the poison.

1Harley Manuscript 5294 (12th century) 
2Bevan-Jones, Robert, Poisonous Plants: A Cultural and Social History (2009)

About the Author

David Salisbury is a queer vegan witch and author of several books on witchcraft and the mystic arts. He lives in Washington DC where he works to co-facilitate The Firefly House, an open pagan organization for the area. He enjoys growing poisonous plants and eating cake (though usually not at the same time).

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