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World Seed Supply’s Mandrake Germination Guide

Mandrake (Mandragora Officinarum) is a member of the nightshade family most notable for its use in witchcraft and its mention in the Harry Potter novel series. Mandrake has a rich folklore that dates back to biblical times. Like other nightshades such as belladonna, brugmansia, datura and henbane, mandrake contains highly toxic tropane alkaloids that can cause complete delirium, vomiting and death. Mandrake is an interesting plant that enjoys the cold weather and forms a huge taproot. Fresh roots sell for impressive amounts of money, although dried roots are fairly inexpensive. Mandrake seeds have a reputation for being stubborn germinators. In general, nightshade plants frequently have this trait. When it comes to Mandrake germination, the process is entirely predicated on temperature fluctuations. The seasonal temperature fluctuations trigger the seeds to germinate. It is common for species of the Northern Hemisphere to germinate based on a rise from cool temps to warmer temps. This has led to a germination technique that is called stratification. Stratification works by placing the seeds in the fridge for a period of several weeks to several months in an attempt to simulate winter. To stratify your mandrake seeds, take a ziplock or other container of moist sand and place your mandrake seeds inside before placing the container in the fridge. You can use moist paper towels instead of sand, but paper has a higher tendency to grow mold. Mold can usually be wiped off without killing the seed, but it is obviously something you want to avoid when possible. Even moist soil will work for this process, but sand has the lowest tendency for mold. After about a month in the fridge, move your mandrake seeds to a warmer location and plant in a loose, fertile well-draining soil. Compost works very well. The subsequent act of planting the seeds in a warmer temperature acts as a seasonal change that triggers the plant’s temperature response, causing the seed to germinate. But what is interesting about mandrake is that the temperature fluctuation seems to work in the opposite way as well. We’ve noticed a trend of mandrake seeds planted in the early spring germinating in the following fall if they failed to sprout that spring. Occasionally, they will even wait until the spring of the following year to germinate. So it is important not to discard or reuse the soil if you didn’t get 100% germination because it will still contain seeds with the potential for germination. Another method for triggering temperature responsive germination in seeds is what we callwinter sowing. Winter sowing simply involves sowing the seeds outdoors during the cooler weather and allowing the natural temperature fluctuation to trigger the seed’s temperature response. In that case, you can plant the seeds in the ground or in the soil that they will ultimately grow in. Preferably, you want a location with full sun to partial shade. There is no need to harden the plants off when you winter sow, and the roots will not be disturbed by transplantation. Since winter sowing relies on cool temperatures, growers in the warmer zones must resort to stratification. But otherwise, this is our preferred method with mandrake. It was in our trials with winter sowing mandrake seeds that we noticed the tendency of the seeds to germinate in subsequent temperature fluctuations aside from just the initial one. This phenomenon likely works as a species preservation mechanism. In the event that a plant does not reach maturity or set seed, it still has backup genetics on deck that are ready to sprout. You will find that mandrake generally does better in the cool or at least mild weather. Personal experience and conversations with other mandrake growers have both dictated that warmer temperatures can sometimes correlate with the plant suffering. In several instances, we’ve had plants lose their leaves. But what is important to know about mandrake is that the root is the life of the plant. As long as the root is living, the leaves have a good chance of returning. We have had plants that we thought died during summer return to life in the fall when the weather cooled down a bit. What actually took place was that the leaves had died back while the root stayed alive below the soil. Although it appeared that the plants were gone, the living taproot held enough life to allow the foliage to return. In another instance, we had some indoor plants that lost their leaves. In this case, it seemed that the reason had to do with an improper root depth. It is important that the mandrake root not be too deeply buried, or the stems of the leaves will be in greater contact with the soil. If you get any standing moisture, they can easily rot at the stem, causing the entire leaf to die. As mentioned earlier, a well-draining soil is imperative. It may be beneficial to put a layer of gravel or perlite at the top in order to improve the drainage specifically where the leaf stems are while allowing the majority of the taproot below to have access to a soil medium that holds a bit more moisture. Lighting also plays a factor because plants grown in lower lighting conditions will have thinner stems that could rot or snap more easily. But an ideal planting depth is one where the top of the taproot is about even with the soil. The taproot may sit slightly above the soil line as well, but you do not want it too far above because it can put extra tension on the stems, which is more of a problem with thinner leaf stems. As you can imagine, there are numerous factors that could lead to leaf loss. But in all cases we’ve experienced, new foliage was able to grow from a healthy taproot, even when all prior leaves had fallen off. So again, it is important to know that the root truly is the life of the plant when it comes to mandrake. Indoor temperatures are usually fine for mandrake since they are mild. You can grow mandrake fairly easily indoors as long as you use artificial lighting. Window lighting is probably insufficient and will lead to thin leaf stems. But a fixture containing two T5 fluorescents is sufficient to support mandrake plants over the winter. However, you should also remember that mandrake is frost hardy. So if you have ground space, there is no need to bring them in for the winter. Depending on your living situation, this may just be a good plant if your indoor growing real estate is already occupied. And while mandrake may seem like a challenging species to grow, it is important to remember that there is leeway…both in the way that you can still expect germination even from seeds that did not originally sprout and in the way you can still squeeze life from a root that may otherwise seem tapped out.