The plant Mandragora officinarum, more commonly known as mandrake, is a plant that has interested people in various fields throughout history. Firstly, the root is split into two at the end, giving the uprooted plant the appearance of a human being. Secondly, it belongs to the nightshade family, containing plants such as the infamous deadly nightshade (belladonna), tobacco, Datura, petunia, tomatoes and potatoes. Like its relatives the belladonna and Datura, mandrakes contain alkaloids such as atropine, scopolamine and hyoscyamine. These substances are potent (and toxic) hallucinogenics and sedatives, which is why they have had various uses ranging from witchcraft to anaesthesia to murder through poisonings.
The shape of the mandrake and its hallucinogenic effects have given it notoriety. Legend goes that when a mandrake root is dug up, it shrieks with such terror that anyone who hears it will die – possibly referring to the toxicity of the alkaloids. Historical texts give detailed instructions on digging up mandrakes by tying a hungry dog to the root and making it pull the plant out of the ground when the owner is out of earshot and he lures the dog with food.
Other folklore suggest that mandrake only grow when the ground is inseminated by semen dripping from a hanged man. This folklore is likely fuelled by the mandrake’s human-like appearance. Ancient and medieval literature associates mandrake being used to make fertility agents and love potions(again, likely related to the hallucinatory, sedative effects). Mandrake is a common ingredient in magic rituals of various kinds, such as in Wiccan rituals.
Alkaloids extracted from mandrake have been used in medicine since the Middle Ages, where extracts were used to anaesthetise patients before surgery, as it has a sedating, hypnotic effect. Eye drops made from mandrake extract were used for hallucinations and mandrake syrups were used to aide sleep. In modern medicine, scopolamine is used in motion sickness patches and atropine is used to speed up the heart rate when it slows too much.
The extensive list of supposed and actual properties of mandrake has made it a popular plant in fiction as well and it can be found in countless works throughout time, such as works of Shakespeare, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and J.K. Rowling.
Among the many hot beverages the world enjoys, tea is probably the number one. No matter how many people drink coffee, no beverage has a history like tea. From the tea ceremony cultures of the East to the Boston Tea Party of the West, the history of tea is long and full of stories. As everyone knows, tea is a drink made by boiling down the leaves of a plant. There are many types of tea: black, oolong, green, yellow and white being the most common. Teas made from more aromatic plants such as jasmine and chamomile are typically put in a separate category known as herbal teas. One surprising fact about tea is that most of them are derived from the same plant.
The plant Camellia sinensis is the source of all teas, with the aforementioned black, oolong, green, yellow and white teas all coming from the leaves of this one plant. However, what makes each tea unique is the way the leaves are processed. For example, if you steam freshly picked leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant then dry them out, you make green tea. If you wither the leaves then lightly crush and bruise them to promote oxidisation, you make black tea. The different ways of processing tea leaves gives each type of tea a unique flavour due to a variety in the ratio of various chemicals. For example, black tea is rich in tannin because of oxidisation, whereas green and oolong teas are milder as they have higher levels of catechins than tannin (the oxidised product of catechin). As catechins act as antioxidants in the human body, green tea is effective in slowing the aging process.
Although the source of the leaves are the same, the different ways of processing makes each tea unique in their ways of preparation. The milder white, yellow and green teas are best prepared by steeping them in water heated to (or cooled from boiling) 70~80°C for 1~2 minutes, while oolong and black tea should be steeped for 2~3 minutes in near-boiling water (80~99°C) for the best taste.
Cordyceps sinensis is a fungus known as dongchoong-hacho(동충하초, 冬蟲夏草) in Korea, with the same characters used in China and Japan. It literally translates to “worm in the winter, herb in the summer”. It is a peculiar fungus with an interesting life cycle. In the summer when the weather is warm, the fungus infects its host (usually ghost moth larvae) through spores. The infected caterpillar is slowly filled with mycelium (thready part of fungi), until it becomes mummified with only the shell remaining. The fungus keeps replicating until it bursts out of the caterpillar’s head with a club-like fruit body (which holds the fungus’ spores). This makes it look as if the caterpillar, which was an insect in the winter, turned into a fungus in the summer (technically it is at this stage, but the caterpillar is long dead). In English, it is also called caterpillar fungus or vegetable worm (which is a misnomer as fungi are not vegetables).
Cordyceps sinensis is an important ingredient in traditional Eastern medicine as it is believed to be a perfect balance between yin and yang due to it possessing both animal and plant (actually a fungus) properties. It is used to treat many diseases from fatigue to cancer.
Although Western medicine usually looks down on and ignores Eastern medicine, research shows that Cordyceps sinensis actually has medicinal properties. Cordycepin, a chemical extracted from the fungus, has been shown to inhibit the growth of viruses, fungi and tumours through its inhibitory actions on a certain protein. There is also research that suggests it can protect the body against radiation poisoning.