~ Mandragora ~
"And Reuben went in the days of wheat harvest, and found mandrakes in the field" - Genesis 30:14
"In March several of the Mandrakes threw a loud and raucous party in greenhouse three. This made Professor Sprout very happy. 'The moment they start trying to move into each other's pots, we'll know they're fully mature,' she told Harry. 'Then we'll be able to revive those poor people in the hospital wing.'" - Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, J. K. Rowling
Professor Pomona Sprout hummed as she worked.
The mandrakes in the pots in front of her were now fully-grown. Each was roughly the size and shape of a three-year-old child, but their mottled green skin had darkened to a pleasant brownish-olive colour. The tufty leaves that sprouted from their heads moved constantly, despite the stillness of the warm, moisture-laden air inside the greenhouse.
There were about two dozen left, now, from the hundred she had started with this year. Severe frosts and heavy snow had killed a few, despite the scarves and socks she'd had her students fit them with. Others had fallen to greenfly and a small horde of flesh-eating slugs.
There had also been some rather overzealous watering from her second-years. Those sorry specimens had become all bloated and leaky and rotten, weeping rancid resins from their herbaceous eyeballs, and Pomona had quickly thrown them onto the compost heap before they could spread disease.
The Herbology professor was now engaged in pulling each healthy adult plant from its pot, cleaning it, and laying it out on the benches ready for preparation. She hummed as she did so.
Pomona couldn't hear herself humming, of course. The mandrakes were none too pleased to be wrenched from the soil of their pots, and were making their voices heard. She was wearing bright pink fluffy earmuffs, enchanted to completely silence the plants' deadly cries. But Professor Sprout always hummed while she worked. She did so now habitually.
Small, grotesque faces looked up at her, trapped in various expressions of outrage and fear, lips moving to no avail.
Sprout tucked an escaped wisp of grey hair back behind one grubby ear, and hummed.
"He's got an ugly face, a hideous nose and a twisted mouth…" - La Mandragola, Machiavelli (translated)
"Would curses kill, as doth the mandrake's groan" - King Henry VI, Shakespeare
Truly ugly things, mandrakes. Dangerous, too. Professor Sprout hadn't let her junior students near them since the plants had become all moody and hormonal. Botanical texts said those were the indications that the mandrakes' voices would soon crack and break, gaining the power to kill rather than simply stun.
Oh yes, they were strange creatures. Or rather, roots. Something, anyway. They really were like no other plant Pomona knew.
With a deft movement, she hobbled the plant before her with a piece of garden twine, preventing its escape.
Funny that they would be so jolly useful in so many antidotes and salves. Yes, it was ironic really, she thought. The little blighters were fatal when alive, and became life-saving in death.
She wiped the last of the mud and compost away from the final mandrake, and looked upon the row of gibbering plants with satisfaction.
"Others, who regarded humanity as the synthesis of animals, despaired about vitalising the mandragore, but they crossed monstrous pairs and projected human seed into animal earth, only for the production of shameful crimes and barren deformities." - Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie, E. Levi (translated)
"Go and catch a falling star, get with child a mandrake root" - John Donne
They had a weird method of propagation, too, Sprout mused, picking the first squalling specimen up by its heels and carefully prising the leaves out of its head with a dibber. They birthed a lot like humans, except underground, in the wet, marshy areas that they favoured for breeding.
After budding off, they would migrate to better growing conditions, uprooting themselves and crawling or stumbling until they found the right soil. They would scream to keep themselves safe when they sensed predators – protecting their newborn offshoots, which they carried around, too. Apparently the mature mandrakes sometimes travelled in groups, taking turns to keep up a persistent cry. Quite innovative, really. Amazing how some plants worked like that, just by intuition.
Slowly and precisely, still humming an unheard ditty, Pomona Sprout worked her way through all the mandrakes, paring them carefully down to just the living root.
"The mandrake has been long known for its poisonous properties and supposed virtues." - 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica
"I've got a Mandrake Root; it's some thunder in my brain" - Mandrake Root, Deep Purple
Pomona picked up the whetstone, and ran it thoughtfully up and down her blade. Many would find a charm would do just as well here, but she preferred a hands-on approach, even for a mildly distasteful job such as this one. Besides, she'd never really had the temperament for Charms.
A large chopping knife would be best for this particular task. The plants' skins were thick, but a serrated edge would just cause them to twist about even more. They were already trying to escape. No point making the job unnecessarily difficult.
One of the mandrakes still had bad skin, she noticed. A little bit weedy, that one, but it would still make a fine restorative draught.
The sunlight of late spring poured down through the roof of greenhouse three, glinting on the edge of the steel knife as she moved it slowly up and down the sharpening stone with a practised hand.
Mandrakes, Sprout thought, shaking her head ruefully. Truly fascinating plants, if a bit disconcerting. A real shame to have to harvest them. She'd have to get some more in for next year. They weren't too difficult to grow, luckily, as long as you could keep the flesh-eating slugs away from them.
Funny, actually. Usually plants weren't meaty enough for that particular pest. But mandrakes were almost animals, really.
They looked almost human.
Sprout's knife stilled for a moment on the whetstone.
"What could possibly be more important than plants turning out to be sentient?" - Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, Eliezer Yudkowsky
"After the storm, when the magic has gone, drown in the tears of a mandrake" - Tears Of A Mandrake, Edguy
It was a crazy thought, of course, that had flitted through her mind as quickly as a pixie with an armful of stolen buttercups.
If mandrakes were, well, alive in more than just the basic sense of the word – if they could think or feel – then someone would have noticed by now. Obviously. Some wise wizard would have pointed out that the plants were sapient, and there'd be provisions to protect them, and so forth.
Sure, the young roots behaved just like human babies.
And sure, anyone would notice the mandrakes kept a passing resemblance to children and then young adults as they grew up. The plants were always curious, and contested amongst themselves for dominance, and sometimes got all sullen and droopy. Sprout herself had witnessed one piercing its ears.
Sure, some of them hunted caterpillars with crude spears, and they often seemed to fall in love, and there were persistent rumours which said that mandrakes that got too old and went to seed would fashion themselves flannel trousers and smoke pipes carved out of sticks.
But that was all just life imitating art. Happened all the time, really.
Besides, the things couldn't even talk. All they did was scream, as if their lives depended on it.
And their blood was green, not red.
Satisfied, Pomona Sprout put down the sharpening stone, and chose the youngest mandrake as her first struggling specimen, dragging it towards her by the heels across the rough wooden planks of the table.
The knife rose and fell, a parabola of steel glittering in the sun.
"You look so human, so different from any other plant" - Mandrake, Mercyful Fate
"That's why they shriek when you pull them up. Did you not know that?" - Waiting For Godot, Samuel Beckett
With slight disgust, Pomona Sprout breathed the cloying scent of mandrake juices. It was something like drowned earthworms and rotting rose petals, and also something else entirely. With one hand, she scooped the latest pile of dripping, bleeding chunks into a cauldron put under the bench for that purpose.
And still she hummed.
Her knife fell and rose and fell again. Beneath its gleaming edge, entirely unheard because of a pair of pretty pink magical earmuffs, the mandrakes...