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Any of six plant species of the genus Mandragora (nightshade family), native to the Mediterranean and the Himalayas. The best-known species, M. officinarum, has a short stem bearing a tuft of ovate flowers, with a thick, fleshy, often forked root. The mandrake has long been known for its poisonous properties. In ancient times it was used as a narcotic and an aphrodisiac, and it was believed to have magical powers. When pulled from the ground, its forked root, supposed to resemble the human form, was said to utter a shriek that killed or drove mad anyone who heard it. Once pulled, however, the plant was said to provide soothing sleep, heal wounds, induce love, and facilitate pregnancy. In North America, the name mandrake is often used for the mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum), a spring forest wildflower.
This entry comes from Encyclopædia Britannica Concise. For the full entry on mandrake, visit Britannica.com.