Is Mandrake the Same as Ginseng?
No, mandrake is not close to ginseng either in composition or genetics.
Don’t be fooled by names like ‘ginseng ficus’ or ‘human root’, as these common names largely serve to confuse between the two plants.
Mandrake, like any good Solanaceae plant, is a mysterious and dark botanical with plenty of history and lore behind it. Solanaceae is the family of plants known as nightshade, which includes deadly nightshade, potatoes, tomatoes, datura, and eggplants, among others.
Shades of purple dominate the flower, making it a beautiful sight on the forest floor. The root is most popularly known for its human-like shape. Pop culture television and film have revived the mandrake’s popularity in the last few decades, drawing a renewed interest to the mysterious plant.
A few people are aware of the myth that a demon inhabited the mandrake’s roots and uprooting it would put your life on the line. It was said that the mandrake screamed like a banshee when the unsuspecting individual pulled it from the soil, which instantly kills them.
In reality, it is believed that this myth was begun as a way to protect the mandrake from poaching and conserve its population, allowing only those qualified to harvest it.
Ginseng Lookalikes Don’t Include Mandrake, So Why the Mix-Up?
You might have noticed on the Ginseng lookalikes page that mandrakes aren’t on this list. So, why is mandrake a common mix-up?
Simply put, it’s the shape of the root and how it was once known in our society. When you have two roots known to resemble the human form, it’s easy to get them confused, especially when they are both used as ancient medicines.
For a long time, everyone knew that mandrake was named for its man-shaped root, so when they came across ginseng root, it was easy to mistake once the plant was pulled out of the ground and cleaned. Just as people would consume mandrake, they consumed ginseng under the belief that it would improve vitality or vigor.
Mandrakes and Other Plants Called Ginseng
Mandrake is not the first plant to be mischaracterized as ginseng. In fact, many common herbs that you might see in the supplement aisle are sometimes referred to as ginseng, such as Withania somnifera (Ashwagandha) and Eleutherococcus senticosus (Eleuthero.)
Common names are a dangerous game to play, especially in today’s world where we can hop on a plane and go to the other side of the world on a whim, or have botanicals imported to us either to ingest or plant in the garden.
This is why scientists prefer to use a specific system of naming known as ‘binomial nomenclature’ which, in normal-speak, translates to a two-part naming system. Mandrake in this system is called Mandragora officinarum; this means that it is the official and primary plant of the Mandragora genus.
In other words? It’s the OG plant everyone’s talking about in the lore and historical record when they say ‘mandrake’.
Identifying Ginseng VS. Mandrake is Easy
There is no need to be concerned about locating or planting mandrake instead of ginseng, even with the resemblance of the two plants’ roots. Identifying ginseng is easy above ground as these two plants look nothing alike.
Mandrake leaves are rugged and crumpled with a single central vein that easily separates both halves of the leaf. They come out of the ground at soil-level in a rosette, much like dandelion leaves.
Ginseng, on the other hand, is a taller plant with a leaf in the shape of a palm (giving the leaf shape the name palmate) with five distinct parts coming from organized stem offshoots.
What is the Mandrake Herb Used For?
There’s a possibility that mandrake has been confused for ginseng because it is also believed to stimulate the libido and fertility, as well as invigorate and warm the body. That, however, is where the similarities end.
Mandrake has also historically been used to treat hay fever, asthma, arthritis, constipation, and to trigger vomiting or sedate someone. It is not in common use any more because of its relatively dangerous qualities and safer alternatives.
Are Mandrakes Toxic? What About Ginseng?
Yes, Mandrakes are highly toxic, no matter what part of the plant you are attempting to harvest from. In historical recipes, it was often diluted to the point that it could achieve the desired effects, but cases of poisoning were still not uncommon.
The toxicity of mandrake varies based on how much is consumed and how the individual processes the toxins through the body. Symptoms may include hallucinations, abdominal pain, dry mouth, blurred vision, and other unpleasant symptoms that could lead to suffocation and prove fatal.
Ginseng, on the other hand, is not nearly as toxic as the mandrake root, though it is known to have some toxic effects in long term or high-dose usage. (1)
“In humans, Panax ginseng is associated with mild toxicity and few adverse events have been reported.”
Many people tolerate the plant well in clinical studies. Side effects associated with ginseng are much milder than mandrake, and include symptoms such as diarrhea, nervousness, insomnia, and blood pressure changes.
Paik DJ, Lee CH. Review of cases of patient risk associated with ginseng abuse and misuse. J Ginseng Res. 2015 Apr;39(2):89-93. doi: 10.1016/j.jgr.2014.11.005. Epub 2014 Dec 6. PMID: 26045681; PMCID: PMC4452531.