Plant-Lore

Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

White bryony or English mandrake

White bryony (Bryonia dioica) is the only member of the Cucumber Family (Cucurbitaceae) native to England and Wales, and is present only as an introduction in Scotland and Ireland.  It has a large tuberous root which annually produce climbing stems with greenish white flowers, followed by red fruits.   As mandrake (Mandragora officinarum) is a scarce plant, largely confined to botanic gardens, in England, white bryony roots have frequently been used as a substitute for it.

Writing of Ireland in 1726 Caleb Threlkeld noted: ‘out of the Root knavish Imposture form Shapes which they style Mandrakes to deceive the Vulgar'[1].

Sometimes such ‘mandrakes’ were partially hollowed out and had grass seeds planted in the cavity, so that on germination they gave the appearance of hair.  Thus Hans Sloane (1669-1753) had in his ‘Collection of Vegetables and Vegetable Substances’ ‘a mandrake’s beard … corn putt into the root of white bryony and thence sprouting’.

In 1908 a man employed to dig a neglected garden near Stratford upon Avon, cut through a large bryony root with his spade.  He called the root ‘mandrake’ and stopped work at once, saying it ‘was awful bad luck’.  Before the week was out he fell and broke his neck [2].

In her Cambridgeshire Customs and Folklore (1969) Enid Porter recorded that ‘mandrake’ roots were crushed and put into rat holes to drive the vermin away, and that W.H. Barrett, born in 1891, remembered:

‘old Fen men digging up roots, selecting those most human in shape washing them carefully and putting in their marks – few of the older generation could read or write.  On their visits to the local inn the men took their roots to join others arranged on the taproom mantleshelf ready to be judged in a competition for which entrant paid a small fee.  On Saturday night the landlord’s wife would be called in to judge the exhibits, a prize being awarded to the root which most resembled the female figure  …  After the prize had been awarded the winning roots stayed on the shelf until it was ousted by a finer specimen.  Even then it was not discarded, for if it was suspended by the string from the rafters of a sow’s stye it was reckoned that more piglets would be produced.  When the root was dry and shrivelled it was placed among the savings kept in an old stocking hidden under the mattress as a guarantee that the hoard would increase'[3].

Elsewhere white bryony roots were valued as a conditioner for horses:

‘In the village of Ascott-under-Wychwood [Oxfordshire] somewhere in the mid-1930s, I watched a groom preparing a mash for his hunter and adding shavings from something which looked like a dried-up parsnip hanging on the wall.  On enquiring was to its identity, I received the reply ‘Mandrake, the best physic there is for ‘osses.’  On smelling and tasting a shaving I realised it was white bryony’ [4].

In the nineteenth century it was noted that the ‘very acrid’ root of white bryony ‘is often scrapped and applied to the limb affected with rheumatism, when it causes a stinging sensation similar to that produced by the nettle’ [5].

1.  C. Threlkeld, Synopsis stirpium Hibernicarum, 1726: 29 [page number in the Boethius Press 1988 facsimile; pages unnumbered in original edition].

2. Folk-lore 24: 240, 1913.

3. E. Porter, Cambridge Customs and Folklore, 1969:46.

4.  Charlbury, Oxfordshire, January 1991; see also the ‘Material Collected’ page on this website.

5. A. Pratt, Wild Flowers, vol.2: 70, 1857.

Image:  root found on beach at Stutton, Essex, February 2018; thanks to Cath Pearson.

Updated 30 August 2018.