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The Book of Genesis records how Leah and Rachel tussled over the right to sleep with Jacob after picking mandrakes from the fields. Leah won and quickly conceived two sons and a daughter.

In the Middle Ages, mandrake, whose twisted roots resemble the lower part of the human body, was a staple ingredient of love potions.

The ancient Arabs called its berried "satan's apples" and "devil's testicles." Shakespeare waxed lyrical about its magical properties, and even Harry Potter, the modern-day children's literary sensation, plants baby mandrakes at the Hogwarts school for wizards and witches.

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But while prized for its potency, mandrake has also been used as an anesthetic and feared for its power as a poison.

Now, Micha Linn, a 74-year-old farmer on a kibbutz in northern Israel, is using the root to create Mandragora, a sweet liqueur that not only tastes good and is safe to drink, but is being hailed through the valleys of the Galilee as a sensational new aphrodisiac.

Mr. Linn, who has lived on Kibbutz Mishmar Ha-Emek since he was born, hit on the idea of producing a liqueur from mandrake fruit after reading in the Bible of its mystical sexual properties.

"The mandrake grows naturally in the wild in this region and the fruit smells so good I wanted to do something with it," he says. He approached a local winery and, after considerable experimentation, produced a first batch in 1992.

"It was no good," he recalls. "They used a process which involved boiling the drink instead of fermenting it. It destroyed the natural flavour of the fruit."

By 1996, with some help from another winemaker, he had perfected the drink, and Mandragora (the Greek name for mandrake) was launched on a modest scale.

Now hundreds of people are flocking to the tiny workshop to buy the distinctive triangular bottles of the golden liqueur -- which tastes fruity and medium-sweet, with a kick. Many of them are repeat customers.

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Reuven Shalev, a twice-married 54-year-old who lives near the kibbutz in northern Israel, says Mandragora took him by surprise.

"I don't believe in all this nonsense, but I bought a bottle for my girlfriend and we decided to try it," Mr. Shalev says. "She's 10 years younger than me. Micha told me to drink one cup and give her two. I didn't feel anything in particular, but when we went to bed, she went absolutely crazy. I'd never seen anything like it. I felt good, but she was something else. She said: 'I don't know what happened to me.' Then she told me to go out and buy another 10 bottles.

"I don't know what's in that stuff, and I don't care," he adds. "I've been married twice and I've been around a bit, but I've never seen anything like that. She was very creative."

Mr. Linn spends most of his time ploughing the fields of the kibbutz. He has planted about three acres of mandrake, which he tends between his other duties. At this time of year, all that can be seen of the plant are its large, broad, deep green leaves lying flat on the ground. In the spring, the waxy yellow fruit will grow and then he will harvest this year's crop.

Last year, he produced about 2,000 bottles, each one a fifth of a litre, which he sells from the kibbutz for around 45 sheckels ($16) each. (In a normal year, he can produce 20,000 bottles, but the recent lack of rain has hurt the crops.)

From his mandrake field, he has a stunning view over the Valley of Jezreel, a historic crossroads for batallions of invading armies who fought for control of the Holy Land since the invasion of the ancient Israelites led by Joshua.

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Behind the kibbutz tower the legendary slopes of Mount Megiddo, the biblical Armageddon, which, according to the New Testament's Book of Revelations, will be the site of the mother of all battles before the end of days. It seems a fitting location to grow a crop whose mysterious legends reach back to biblical times.

Mr. Linn says he sells drinks, not legends, but his satisfied customers keep coming back for more, bearing tales of enhanced potency and new heights of sexual satisfaction. They tell him it is doing wonders for their sex lives, increasing sperm counts and curing impotence.

Scientists are baffled. While they agree the mandrake is poisonous, they have been unable to find any reason that it should work as an aphrodisiac.

Stories about the kibbutz love-potion have whistled through the hills and valleys of northern Israel, where half the population are Arabs.

Samir Absawi, who runs the Ibn Sina Pharmacy near Mary's Well in Nazareth, 50 kilometres away, says he has sold many bottles of Mandragora to satisfied customers and has seen scientific evidence of its effectiveness.

"I'm a pharmacist, so I knew about this plant and its effect," Mr. Absawi says. "There is scientific evidence that it can help sexual activity both for men and for women.

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"One of my customers had been married for three years and he couldn't have children. His sperm count was too low. I told him about Mandragora and he started taking it. I saw the results of his lab tests after a few weeks and his sperm count had doubled.

"I've seen improvements in other cases, too, as well as all the customers who use it with their wives or girlfriends and say it has a very good effect on their sex lives," Mr. Absawi added.

Mr. Linn also tells of the elderly Haj -- a religious Muslim who has made the pilgrimage to Mecca -- who came to him after hearing the liqueur could cure impotence.

"As an observant Muslim, he's not supposed to drink alcohol, but he took me into his confidence and said he was at his wit's end," Mr. Linn says. "He took several bottles, and phoned me some time after to say his life had changed completely."

Then there was the Christian Arab who told Mr. Linn he was a hunter of wild boar, famous in his community, but impotent.

"He bought three litres," Mr. Linn says. "After two months he came back and said 'You'd be surprised how good I am now.' He must have been pleased -- he bought an other three litres."

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Mr. Linn has heard dozens of such stories from the middle-aged lovers, elderly Arabs and young kibbutzniks who keep coming back for more.

"Micha, we just can't stop making love," one young man told him. "We've been doing it so much we can hardly stand."

He also tells of one client who sells the liqueur in her hotel and has been trying to get pregnant for 10 years. Three weeks after she started drinking Mandragora, she conceived.

However, scientists are not convinced about the mandrake legend.

"There is no evidence whatsoever for the fertility or aphrodisiac effects ascribed to the mandrake by previous generations," says Prof. Zohara Yaniv of the Volcani agricultural research centre in Israel, which approved Micha's fermentation process for public consumption. "The active alkaloid compounds which make the mandrake effective as a medicine or poison are only present during certain seasons. When the fruit is ripe to eat, the compounds are absent, so I'm afraid there is no chemical present to cause fertility or anything else."

But Minna Feran, an expert on Israeli plants and herbs, says more research should be done into the use of mandrake as an aphrodisiac.

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"When you have so many stories over such a long period of time, there is usually something at the bottom of it," she says.

Mr Linn is at pains to stress that he does not vouch for the aphrodisiac or medical effects of his liqueur.

Nonetheless, he spent three years researching how to make Mandragora without poisoning anyone.

His process has been approved by the Israeli authorities and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. He refused to reveal the details of his recipe, except that it involves the flesh of the yellow mandrake fruit, lemon and sugar to help the fermentation process. The finished product contains 17 per cent alcohol, is completely organic and is certified 100 per cent kosher -- even for Passover -- by a local rabbi.

The mandrake grows naturally in the wild in the Middle East, but Mr. Linn believes he is the first person to cultivate the plant commercially and he has taken out a worldwide patent on the process. He has developed a particular strain that gives extra fruit, which has been registered as the Micha Linn Mandrake.

When you ask him if he really believes he has discovered a Viagra of the valleys, he just shrugs his shoulders, his grandfatherly features breaking into a broad smile.

But from the tiny workshop and its shelves stacked with bottles of the precious potion, Micha's call rings clear across the ancient battlefield: "Make love, not war."

The mandrake and the myth

Mandrake (mandragora officianum) is indigenous to the lands around the Mediterranean Sea and Southern Europe. It plant was described by Gerard in his 1597 Gerard's Herbal, The History of Plants as follows:

"The male Mandrake hath great broad long smooth leaves of a darke greene colour, flat spred upon the ground: among which come up the floures of a pale whitish colour, standing every one upon a single small and weake foot-stalke of a whitish greene colour: in their places grow round Apples of a yellowish colour, smooth, soft and glittering, of a strong smell: in which are contained flat and smooth seeds in fashion of a little kidney, like those of the Thorneapple. The root is long, thicke, whitish, divided many times into two or three parts resembling the legs of a man, as it hath been reported; whereas in truth it is no otherwise that in the roots of carrots, parseneps, and such like, forked or divided into two parts, which Nature taketh no account of."

The plant is mentioned as early as Genesis 30:16: "And Jacob came out of the field in the evening, and Leah went out to meet him, and said, Thou must come in unto me; for surely I have hired thee with my son's mandrakes. And he lay with her that night."

According to the Juliana Codex, Dioscorides received the mandrake from Heuresis, goddess of discovery, illustrating the early belief in its sacred nature. Early Christians believed the mandrake was a precursor of Adam in the Garden.

In the secret catechism of the Druses, the sons of God create men by descending to earth and animating seven mandragoras -- mannikins.

The Roman historian Josephus wrote that the foul stench, shrieks and terrible groans made by a mandrake being uprooted would cause sudden death.

Shakespeare refers to its sensual and mystical properties in several works, including Antony and Cleopatra: "Give me to drink mandragora/That I may sleep out this great gap of time my Antony is away."

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