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Mandrake, Mandragora officinarum, has hyoscine (scopolamine), an antimuscarinic drug, in its root. Hyoscine is a narcotic and it is remarkable that its use for premedication before surgery has not changed for 2000 years. The herbalist Dioscorides in AD 100 gave mandrake so that “such as shall be cut or cauterised are overborne with deep sleep” and to day hyoscine may still be used before anaesthesia and surgery. Hyoscine, unlike atropine, produces only a slight tachycardia and is not used in cardiac treatment. But in a very low dose hyoscine produces a paradoxical increase in cardiac vagal activity, and this action has been utilised to study baroreflex sensitivity in patients with heart failure (Heart1996;75:274–80).
In ancient times mandrake was a highly prized medicinal plant, and professional herb gatherers invented a legend to deter others from harvesting it. It was said that when a man dug up a mandrake it gave a terrible shriek which killed him. But this problem was solved by using a dog (which died) to pull the plant out of the ground while the man stopped his ears. This is well shown in the old herbal illustration on the stamp. The forked root of the plant was said to resemble a human being, hence the name mandrake.
Mandrake belongs to the family Solanaceae, which contains species with the pharmacologically important drugs atropine and nicotine. Other plants in the family include potato, tomato, and pepper (capsicum).
The 5 schilling Austrian stamp depicting man collecting mandragora (from Codex Tacuinum Sanitatis) was a single denomination issue from 1986 to commemorate the 7th European Anaesthesia Congress held in Vienna.