Name: White Bryony (Bryonia alba)
Otherwise known as: English Mandrake, Navet du Diable
Habitat: A perennial climbing herb of the Cucurbitaceae family. It grows to about 5m in any kind of wasteland in Europe, with vine-like leaves which are rough and hairy, and tendrils that cling to any available surface. The green flowers develop into bright black berries. The root and berries are extremely poisonous.
What does it do: Very few plants of this size spring from such an enormous root, which closely resembles Mandragora officinalis, this distinguishes it from Black bryony, (Tamus communis), which has black roots, and is not related.
This plant was well known to the ancients and used by Galen and Dioscorides as a purge and a treatment for leprosy. The Emperor Augustus was advised by his physicians to wear a necklace of bryony root as a protection against lightning.
Culpeper states ‘it is a furious herb, but good against stitches, cramps, convulsions and palsies’. There is an interesting comment by Gerard who states ‘…the Queen’s surgeon, William Godorous, a very learned and curious gentleman, shewed me a root that weighed half an hundred weight and was as big as a child’. This referred to a practice by what were known as ‘runaby’ doctors, or as Gerard would have it ‘the most scurrilous charlatans’, who would sell bryony root as mandrake; which was thought to have magical powers and was therefore vastly more expensive. A common practice was to surround the fresh root of Bryony with plaster moulds in the shape of manikins, and eventually produce a man-shaped root, which could be passed off as mandrake.
The plant contains alkaloids, resins, cucurbaticins and tannins. Before the discovery of quinine, Bryony and Yarrow were standard European treatments for Malaria; Bryony is not much used by herbalists but remains popular with homeopaths.
In Russian folklore, this herb had such a morbid reputation, it was believed that whoever removed it from the soil would destroy their own happiness. Consequently, whenever the plant was discovered it would be hedged around and left unmolested. The boiled root was used to heal wounds in horse’s hoofs and the berries applied to festering wounds.
Alexander McCowan is author of The World’s most Dangerous Plants, published by Lulu eBooks