Stories from the Rare Book Collection: Bioprospecting in ancient herbals.
Herbals contain tales and stories about the health benefits and hazards of many plants, some of which we might find incredible today. Take the mandrake, or Mandragora, made famous in the Harry Potter novels. In many herbals, there are elaborate directions for harvesting and using mandrake, with fascinating woodcuts illustrating the male and female varieties (based on the limb-like shape of the roots). We may giggle at the notion of screaming plants, but the chemistry of Mandragora is no laughing matter. With tropane alkaloids, mandrake is a serious chemical factory, like other members of the nightshade (or Solanaceae) family. How can we cull useful medical experiences from ancient herbals, while discarding the ridiculous?