Mandrake magic

A pensioner from a northern kibbutz has dedicated himself to producing a liqueur from mandrakes, a plant some believe has mystical qualities.

micha linn 88 298 (photo credit: )
micha linn 88 298
(photo credit: )
On his small winery, 80-year-old kibbutznik Micha Linn produces exotic liqueurs, one in particular proving to be much in demand for its more-than-spiritual kick. Although scientists have conceded there is no concrete evidence that the mandrake plant has qualities beyond being an attractive and highly aromatic plant producing tasty fruit, rife rumors and biblical writings have led many to believe that there might be some aphrodisiac and fertility qualities there as well. The mandrake is also known to be rather poisonous, so one really needs to know what to do when producing mandrake liqueur. The plant, also known as the shrieking or screaming plant, grows in the wild throughout the Menashe Hills forest behind Linn's abode. Some areas of the Galilee where mandrakes flourished in the past were acquired by land developers and the construction work consequently killed off the plant's fertile patches, although there are still mandrakes to be found elsewhere in the region. The large, lengthy roots of the mandrake measuring some 70 to 80 centimeters are bulbous, twisted and some say - and have written over the ages - resemble the lower part of the human body. In the Middle Ages mandrake properties were used as the basic ingredient of love potions, but harvesters were fearful of pulling the plant out of the ground as the superstitious potion preparers believed they would go mad, or be deafened and even possibly die if they heard a mandrake shrieking. "During the Middle Ages they would dig up the soil around the mandrake's roots and then tie a dog or a horse to the stem. When the person walked away, the animal would naturally follow and the plant be yanked out of the ground. If some sort of spell be cast, the animal would go mad, deaf or die and not the person," explains Linn, who began to expand a lifetime interest in the plant and its perceived properties when he retired from plowing kibbutz cotton fields just 18 months ago. "I thought it was time to give up the place for one of the younger members," he shrugs. The son of pioneer parents who came from Poland to the Jezreeel Valley 85 years ago to found kibbutz Mishmar HaEmek, Micha was the second child born in the community and has lived there all his life. An insatiable creative sense of curiosity and ardent love of the land and its inhabitants since biblical times propelled him not only to cultivate the land but also excavate parts of it around his kibbutz. Some 30 years ago he discovered one of the oldest olive presses to be unearthed in the country, after which the intrepid amateur archaeologist followed his intuition and began excavating a hill near the Shomria kibbutz high-school where he had been educated, and discovered an ancient city practically in his own backyard. "The city was a place called Gaba in Greek and Geva in Hebrew during the Bronze Age and renamed Geva Hippon or Geva Parashim (Cavalry Hill) during the time of Herod the Great in the first century BCE," he explains. Although he is sure there are many more secrets of bygone times to be unearthed around his kibbutz, a few kilometers down the road from the ancient Tel Megiddo, Linn decided to concentrate on the less physically demanding - and possibly at the end of the day more enjoyable - task of producing liqueurs, particularly from mandrakes (dudaim in Hebrew, mandragora in Greek). Apart from the mandrake, he also produces liqueurs from pomegranates, lemons, figs, guava and sabras to name a few. "There are many who believe that the mandrake - also known as the 'love plant' - not only helps boost male sperm count but also helps barren women become pregnant," says Linn, pouring a couple of small glasses of mandrake liqueur and placing them gently on the table. "In biblical times when Jacob's wife Rachel was childless, the mandrake came to the rescue - at least that is what we read in the bible," he continues. In the Book of Genesis, Reuven, the eldest son of Jacob and Leah, finds some mandrakes and Rachel, his mother's sister and also married to Jacob, takes a fancy to the fruit and barters with her sister Leah for them. Rachel offers Leah a night in Jacob's bed that should have been hers. Soon after this trade-off, the previously barren Rachel, who had in the meantime consumed the mandrakes, became pregnant with Joseph. Leah, satisfied with the exchange of fruits of her son's labors, also apparently announced rather smugly to Jacob, "I hired you with mandrakes." When pressed as to whether he personally believes the mandrake has properties to boast about, Linn is wary with his answer, pointing out that scientists have yet to prove anything concrete. However, there are those - including from the haredi community - who swear by Linn's magical potion. As word spread, requests for the liqueur grew and, he says somewhat tongue-in-cheek, so has the population. Even though not entirely in keeping with the Moslem religion, Linn has also had a few satisfied customers from that sector of Israeli society. Ancient Arabs called the mandrake fruit "Satan's apples" or "devils testicles," and even the most famous bard of all, Shakespeare, wrote of its magical properties. In more modern times the young Harry Potter, pottering around Hogwarts school garden for wizards and witches, also plants mandrakes therein. With spreading velvety leaves surrounding a lush purple flower and large yellow fruit, the mandrake is used by herbalists and homeopaths as a remedy for infertility, and there are folks who swear that it is a natural aphrodisiac. In France and Spain peasant farmers are known to hang dried mandrake roots on barn doors to ensure the fertility of their flocks of sheep and goats. Until recently, Linn cultivated mandrakes on 20 dunams of kibbutz land; but when he began to find bending down a little too arduous, he gingerly transferred them to huge bright blue plastic tubs which now crowd one corner of the field. "I found it difficult to get down to the mandrakes so we brought them up to me," he jokes. For the past three years, professors from the universities of St. Louis and Haifa have been working closely with Linn, studying the mandrake and carrying out experiments - although he says nothing really conclusive has yet been achieved. Although there is a certificate on the wall awarding Linn recognition by the Israel Wine Institute, he does not intend to turn his liqueur producing talents into a money-making enterprise. "I'm not looking to make a profit, rather in search of the best quality I can attain - and of course assist in the scientific research," says Linn, raising a glass of mandrake liqueur to his industrious and enjoyable quest.