The history of Mandragora turkomanica (Solanaceae)

Israel Journal of Plant Sciences
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  • 1 Moscow Society of Nature Explorers (est. 1805)
  • | 2 Moscow Society of Nature Explorers (est. 1805)

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In 1938 a new species, Mandragora turcomanica O. Mizgir., was discovered in the Sumbar river valley near the Soviet–Iranian border in the nowadays Republic of Turkmenistan. The prevailing hypothesis of its origin was that M. turcomanica is a species that survived in a refuge between the Mediterranean and Himalayan parts of the now disjunct genus range. Meteorological observation conducted by the author in the area occupied by the species revealed that the presumed high frost tolerance of the species was exaggerated. The plants of the Sumbar Valley could survive only in a narrow altitude belt due a very specific combination of favorable microclimate and soil. However, the present distribution of mandrake plants in Turkmenistan cannot explain why the plants were never observed in the southern valleys of the Turkmen–Khorasan range of northern Iran, which has a similar landscape to the Sumbar Valley and a considerably warmer climate. Cultivation and usage of the Turkmenian mandrake as a medicinal plant in Iran, its name “halom” and the fact that all known locations of Turkmenian mandrake match the traces of ancient irrigation in the Sumbar Valley support the hypothesis that Turkmenian mandrake could be the holy plant the ancient Iranians called “Haoma”, repeatedly mentioned in the “Avesta” (the collection of sacred texts of the ancient Aryan religion known as Zoroastrianism). The introduction of mandrake currently growing in Sumbar Valley from the other region is supported by the species biology, i.e. the lack of dispersal of its fruits by birds which strongly limits its potential distribution, and by a recently reported high genetic similarity of Turkmenian mandrake with plants from Israel.

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