Thursday, April 30, 2015

Wednesday's Wildflower: Mayapple

There is no mistaking those big, round leaves propped up all along the forest floor like beach umbrellas.

Mayapples may be better known for their leaves and fruit than their flowers, but this time of year you can find the white, waxy, fragrant blooms if you lean down a little.

These plants can be found all throughout the Eastern US, preferring moist woods that are a little more open.

Their leaves can be seen pushing their way to the surface as early as March.

They slowly unfurl like a big cape, finally stretching out to their full breadth within a week or two.

The amazing leaves, besides providing a good umbrella for a small child, are very effective at controlling their space. They cast a wide shadow, helping to prevent other plants from taking over their patch of soil.

When you are observing at a stand of Mayapples, you are essentially viewing one plant connected by a single root system.

Its Latin name is highly descriptive of its appearance: Podophyllum peltatum.

Podophlyllum means "foot leaf," perhaps likening its appearance to a webbed  bird's foot.

Peltatum means "shield-shaped."

The common name is also pretty descriptive. Their "apples" or fruit, typically appear on the plants by May.

Only the individuals receiving sufficient sunshine will flower and set fruit. Out of these plants, only those with two leaves will reproduce.

The  blooms are pollinated by bumblebees, and the fertilized flowers transform into the plant's signature "apple."

Don't be tempted to eat it at this stage, however. In fact, all parts of the plant are toxic, save for the ripe fruit.

It becomes ripe once it falls from the plant and turns yellow. This usually coincides with the leaves dying back. The fruit then has a lovely, sweet, lemony fragrance and flavor.

Mayapple Fruit
If you manage to beat the wild animals to it, you can try the fruit in a variety of ways. Some folks like to cut it up and turn it into jam or jelly. Others transform it into a unique beverage like lemonade. Cookbooks from the 16th and 17th centuries suggested slicing and stewing the sweetened, whole fruits with ginger and cloves.
I will strongly reiterate that all other parts of the plant are highly toxic, usually inducing a strong emetic reaction. The plant contains a powerful alkaloid known as podophyllin. This chemical actually prevents cells from growing. The roots are especially high in this toxin, causing extreme inflammation in the stomach and intestines which can be fatal.

Despite its powerful ability to do damage to the body, Native Americans did use it for medicine.

May Apple plant
The Cherokee would use the boiled root as a purgative, only they emphasized using just the sections between the root joints. A drop of fresh juice in the ear was used to heal deafness. The root soaked in whiskey was administered to treat arthritis and eaten to treat constipation.

Dried roots harvested in the fall were mashed into a paste that corn seeds were soaked in before planting to deter pests.

Another name for Mayapple is Mandrake.

It is completely unrelated to the true Mandrake (Mandragora officinarum) found in Europe. In its native homeland, Mandrake has been a significant plant in European folklore for centuries. Occasionally the root would divide into 5 parts and resemble a human being. Because of this it was associated with fertility and used in rituals.

Similarly, it was believed by Native Americans that a woman who dug up our native Mayapple would soon find herself pregnant.

However, even contact with the roots can cause severe dermatitis in some individuals, occasionally resulting in skin lesions.

As is the case with many toxic plants, strong poison can also mean powerful medicine.

Remember how the chemical in Mayapple, podophyllin stops cells from growing? This chemical has been successfully used to treat skin cancers and venereal warts. Other compounds present in this plant are under study for the treatment of testicular and bronchial cancers, and still others have been approved by the FDA for treating lung cancer.

While most of us are aware of the pharmaceutical powerhouse under threat in our disappearing rainforests, there is a wealth of potential medicine that is equally important right at our back door in need of preserving. The Mayapple is just one example of the healing power of our native plants.

Be sure to join us for next Wednesday's wildflower!

Click here to read about last week's wildflower: Wild Hyacinth

Medicinal information herein is shared strictly for anecdotal purposes. Do not attempt to self-medicate with wild herbs. Please consult a doctor first.

Next flower->


Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and Not So Wild) Places - "Wildman" Steve Brill

All About Tennessee Wildflowers - Jan W. Midgley

Cherokee Plants & Their Uses - a 400 Year History - Paul B. Hamel & Mary U. Chiltoskey


  1. I love Mayapples! I didn't know you could eat the fruit though! Thanks for teaching me something new and I'm going to have to try this!

    1. I haven't had the chance to try it yet, because the animals ALWAYS beat us to them. I think you can bring the green fruit indoors and it will still ripen. Maybe i'll try that this time.

  2. What a neat plant! Also, the color of that preserve is glorious- makes me want to try it!

    1. I know! It's supposed to make a good marmalade.

  3. Very interesting! I don't believe I have ever seen a MAYAPPLE flower before. Thank you for sharing with the Clever Chicks Blog Hop! I hope you’ll join us again next week!

    Kathy Shea Mormino
    The Chicken Chick