Toxicity from mandrake berries used as a sexual aid

June 27, 2012, 12:50 pm


Accidental Poisoning After Ingestion of “Aphrodisiac” Berries: Diagnosis by Analytical Toxicology. Nikolaou P et al. J Emerg Med 2012 Jun;42:662-665.


Go and catch a falling star,
Get with child a mandrake root,
Tell me where all past years are,
Or who cleft the devil’s foot

John Donne (1572 -1631)

The mystique surrounding the mandrake plant goes back to antiquity. Mandrake is mentioned in the bible as an aphrodisiac and aid to facilitate conception. According to Wikipedia, an ancient legend holds that the plant screams when it is uprooted, killing anyone within earshot. The first century historian Josephus provided the following instructions for harvesting the plant:

A furrow must be dug around the root until its lower part is exposed, then a dog is tied to it, after which the person tying the dog must get away. The dog endeavors to follow him, and so easily pulls up the root, but dies suddenly instead of his master. After this the root can be handled without fear.

Legend aside, the mandrake plant, Mandragora officinarum, a member of the Solanaceae family, is indeed poisonous. The roots and berries contain anticholinergic alkaloids such as hyoscyamine and scopolamine. This case report, from the University of Athens, describes a 35-year-old man who presented to hospital with a full-blown anticholinergic syndrome: agitation, hallucinations, dilated pupils, dry mouth and skin, mild hyperthermia, tachycardia, and urinary retention. The patient’s girlfriend revealed that he had ingested five berries (later identified as Mandragora) to improve sexual performance. Analysis of the patient’s urine, and of the berries themselves, revealed the presence of hyoscyamine and scopolamine.

The anticholinergic manifestations resolved after treatment with 2 mg physostigmine. The paper is not specific as to whether or not they recurred after the effects of the antidote had worn off.

The following is from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets: