The Mandrake Project 2013, Part One

At the end of 2012, I decided that my project for 2013 would be to grow 100 mandrakes. You might ask why so many. I do enjoy growing them, but I also want to make them available as live and/or dried roots through Alchemy Works. I’ve done this in a casual way over the years, selling some when I had a bunch going. But I finally decided that I needed to fulfill a dream I had some time ago. It featured Datura Spirit, and Mandrake was simply a mute presence waiting in the wings (or hanging from the ceiling in the dream). I still grow daturas every year, but I feel that it’s time for me to move forward and work more directly with mandrake, and especially its spirit. Since my experience has been that if you consistently grow and tend a plant, its spirit will eventually contact you, I decided that if I wanted to really know Mandrake Spirit, I must become more serious about growing these plants.

There can be a couple of approaches to learning a plant. Grow one individual and get to know its personal quirks in that little plot of land or pot very well, or grow a bunch of them, with all their variety, and get to know the plant as a group. Since my ultimate goal is to work with the spirit of mandrake on a regular basis, I figured that growing a lot of them and learning the plant as a whole would be best. And 100 is just a nice big collie of number.  I know a good bit now about growing them, but there is so much more to learn. This is one of those plants that has not received much attention from horticulturalists in print, so  whereas you might be able to find articles detailing exactly how best to germinate some type of savannah grass, you would be hard-pressed to find any such info about mandrakes.

I started back in early November and have planted a series of batches. So far I’ve got 36 46 seedlings, about 20% germination rate over all that I have planted, which is not bad considering we’ve only just finished with February, and as most of you know, mandrake is notoriously slow to germinate.

As part of my project, I am experimenting with all sorts of germination methods (later, I will move on to experiment with methods for getting large roots or how most reliably to attain fruiting). A couple times in the past I’ve tried Norm Deno’s Outdoor Treatment, which has worked so very well with 95% of the seeds I’ve used it on but has not worked at all on mandrakes; I won’t bother with that again with these guys. I’ve tried my regular soaking method and doing a hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) soak of 48 hours and then just rinse and plant. I’ve also started during both waning and waxing Moons. I’ve planted in peat pellets covered with chick grit, peat pellets without chick grit, and regular potting soil covered with chick grit. The chick grit thing is something I learned from a British book on propagation (gotta love them Brit plant nerds–they are the best!). It’s supposed to help keep down fungus gnats, which I have quite a bit of, but they don’t seem to be actually harming the plants, and I am catching them on sticky yellow traps. I tried Bt israelensis, a bacteria that supposedly eats the fungus that fungus gnat babies live in and so, indirectly, kills the little bastards, but it is not working very well. Nor did my usual 3 days of watering with tepid chamomile tea, which usually knocks them out. I guess these fungus gnats are just heartier than average, or more determined, or they love mandrakes.

The chick grit seems most effective on the regular pots. This is the first time I tried using regular pots to sprout seeds. They are just the small 3″ plastic pots, and I planted 5 seeds to a pot. This is another idea from the propagation book mentioned above, and I like it. It saves space and you can use your own formulation of seed starting mix and you don’t have to dispense with a bunch of nylon netting from the peat pellets. With the next batch of mandrakes, I will try adding some oyster shell to the potting soil (1/2 cup to 5 gallons) to make it more alkaline; I have read a couple articles that say mandrake likes it alkaline (although I’ve also read one that said they like it acidic!). It’s worth a try, anyhow, and to make it alkaline, I’m going to use Saturnian bones–in this case, the bones of sea creatures, aka oyster shells. I have still to try using gibberellic acid and saltpetre. I’m already 2 weeks behind in my seed-starting schedule; I had a bunch to start on Feb 15 and didn’t get to it, and now there’s another bunch I should have started on Mar 1. These are seeds other than mandrakes, mostly witching herbs and some annuals just for decoration.

At any rate, so far the most effective germination method is planting in potting soil in pots with chick grit and using a propagation mat that is on during the daytime and off at night. the mat keeps the soil 10-20F/5-10C above ambient temperature. This bunch is in the basement, which never gets above 55F/13C in the winter and is usually around 50F/10C. That’s pretty cool for plants to grow, and I’ve noticed in the past that if I kept grown-up mandrakes down there on light shelves in winter, they just sat there and didn’t grow at all because of the cold (they also got full of aphids from being crowded). However, I also tried using the propagation mat all the time, and that was too warm for them; the soil dried out too quickly and I knew that meant the seeds were getting baked. In fact, once they germinate, they seem to do better without any bottom heat. All the pots and peat pellets are watered with a liquid kelp solution and set under shoplights. I think the key is the temperature flunctuation and I have shifted all the pellets that have not sprouted yet to propagation mats so I can try this with them. And what do you know–since I started writing this entry, I have had germination.

When I began writing this post less than a week ago, the least successful method so far had been the soak in hydrogen peroxide. Two seeds out of 50 had germinated after a month. I worried that I might have left them in the hydrogen peroxide for too long. It was a solution of dilution of 3% H2O2, just like you buy at the drugstore, mixed 1:9 with filtered water (the scientific articles I read about using H2O2 to sprout seeds recommended distilled water, but I have found that good filtered water works fine–just make sure your water doesn’t have chlorine in it. If you don’t have a filter that can remove that, let the water sit out for 24 hours in a pot so the chlorine can evaporate). The H2O2 soak did change the appearance of the seeds. The smaller black mandrake seeds came out looking bleached. I thought this was not a good sign. The larger white mandrake seeds conversely looked a little brown around the edges. I was concerned, but I planted all 50 seeds anyhow on 1/29 and hoped for the best. They did nothing much until I put them on the propagation mat in the basement.  In less than a week of being on the mat, eight have sprouted, about half black and half white mandrakes! So yes, I think the temperature fluctuation is key, and that the necessity is for very cool temps as well with this plant.

What can we conclude so far in terms of this seed and witchcraft? We can sure see that mandrake has Saturnian slowness in germination. Unlike Sun plants like sunflowers, it does not need or like to be planted directly outside in Sun-warmed soil; it likes to be inside or in a protected environment outside (I’ve germinated them on a covered patio in the early spring in upstate NY, for instance). So it likes shade and it likes cool, which is another Saturnian characteristic. The one thing different is the fluctuation.

Now, why did they not germinate when I gave them Outdoor Treatment, because that’s temperature fluctuation in spades? I tried this in a couple of different years, and got nothing. With Outdoor Treatment, the seeds are put into a paper towel that has been wet and wrung out (I usually use a liquid kelp solution for this) and the towel folded up and pressed genty against the seeds. The whole shebang is put into a thin plastic baggie that’s left open and put outside in winter in a sheltered location, like an unheated garage, shed, or a covered patio (I use a metal cabinet on my covered patio).  Then just check for germination in the spring, and when they start to germinate, put them in potting soil. Well, nothing ever happened with mandrake seeds treated this way, even though once again I could tell that the seeds were still alive (because they were still hard and no rotting or mold had occurred–dead seeds rot, although so do water-logged seeds). The advantage of Outdoor Treatment is the fluctuation in temperatures, although they are colder than the temps in an unheated basement, at least, during the major part of winter. Once spring approaches, the temps in a protected outdoor structure and my basement are not that different. But I don’t think that the difference in temperatures between Outdoor Treatment and my basement was what made the difference for the germination of the mandrake seeds. I think it’s the contact with soil that the seeds in the basement have had (and perhaps as well that the basement itself is “buried” in soil). That would definitely indicate that this plant has an even stronger chthonic aspect than the vast majority of other plants that do benefit from Outdoor Treatment. There is something that mandrake gets from contact with the soil that other plants, even things with big roots like radishes and carrot, do not.

I’m going to redo an H2O2 soak and then do gibberellic acid and saltpetre, and I will write about the results.

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