Magical plants described in the hugely successful Harry Potter books by J K Rowling are, in fact, based on real plants; the Mandrake, Belladonna and Wolfsbane do exist.
In Harry Potter’s world, Herbalogy lessons were taught by Professor Pomana Sprout and earned a mention in the first six Harry Potter books; the greenhouses formed the center for active Herbalogy lessons and it was in here that Mandrakes, amongst other magical plants, could be found. In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets a potion was made from Mandrakes to help students which had been petrified by the Monster of the Chamber.
Mandrakes of Harry Potter
In the Harry Potter books, Mandrakes are described as purple and green ‘tufty’ plants; in place of the roots of a regular plant, Mandrakes have tiny creatures attached which resemble babies. It takes a few months for the creatures to reach maturity; on maturity, the Mandrake plant is ready to be harvested.
Mandrakes are a useful ingredient in many potions, particularly as a restorative ingredient. However, care has to be taken when harvesting or re-potting Mandrakes, as the cry of a fully grown Mandrake is fatal to humans; baby Mandrake cries are capable of knocking a human out for a couple of hours.
The Real Mandragora Officinarum
The real Mandrake, Mandragora officinarum, is a member of the Solanaceae plant family; it was said to resemble a human form, similar to the human-like roots of the magical Mandrake plant in the Harry Potter books. In fact, in the seventeenth century, it was widely believed that the Mandrake plant had a scream so deafening to the human ear that dogs were used to harvest the Mandrake as an alternative means.
As Mandrake is of the Nightshades plant family, it contains deadly chemicals which are both poisonous and hallucinogenic; however, the Mandrake has been used for pain relief and as an anesthetic, although if taken in large doses internally, the Mandrake can cause madness and delirium. It has been used extensively in magic, spells and witchcraft.
The Belladonna of Harry Potter
In the Harry Potter books, Belladonna, also known as deadly nightshade, Atropa and witch’s berry, is standard in all Hogwart students potion making-kit. In Harry Potter’s Potions classes, the Belladonna’s fluids are used to make many potions. The Belladonna is a poisonous plant; the seeds of Belladonna are purple.
The Real Atropa Belladonna
The real Atropa Belladonna is also a member of the Solanaceae plant family; it is a perennial herbaceous plant and is one of the most toxic plants in the Western world. Despite being poisonous, the Belladonna has been used for many medicinal purposes including use in treating peptic ulcers and intestinal colic.
Belladonna has also been used in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease and as an antidote to mushroom poisoning; it has been used in traditional and homeopathic treatments for centuries to help headaches, menstrual problems, motion sickness and inflammation. Belladonna has also been used as a recreational drug due to its hallucinogenic properties.
In the Middle Ages, legend says that Belladonna was used by witches, together with Wolfsbane, as a powerful hallucinogenic; the hallucinogenic properties of Belladonna convinced witches they could fly. ‘Bella donna’ is translated in the Italian language as ‘beautiful woman’ in reference to the way in which Italian women used to put the drops in their eyes to make them look larger and more beautiful.
Wolfsbane of Harry Potter
In the Harry Potter books, J K Rowling describes the use of Wolfsbane in Wolfsbane potion, a complex potion used to protect a werewolf’s intelligence when he transforms from human form; this effectively makes the werewolf less dangerous. Wolfsbane potion is mentioned in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
The Real Wolfsbane
The real Wolfsbane, Aconitum , or Monkshood, is a member of the Ranunculaceae plant family; it is a perennial herbaceous plant with blue, purple, white, pink or yellow flowers. There are over 250 species of Aconitum. Wolfsbane is used in homeopathy, Chinese Medicine and traditional medicine; in Western medicine it was considered to be of great importance before the invention of Morphine.
Wolfsbane’s association with werewolves dates back to the Middle Ages; mixed with honey and powdered glass, Wolfsbane was used to poison wolves and was responsible for the death of many European wolves. In folklore, Wolfsbane was said to turn a person into a werewolf; it was a popular ingredient of many witches’ magical potions.