Mayapple Plant Profile

MAYAPPLE (Podophyllum peltatum) by Marion Lobstein

Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) is one of the most easily recognizable spring wildflowers by its distinctive foliage.  By early to mid-April the unopened, peltate leaves of Mayapple begin to poke through the forest litter resembling a fat green umbrella ready to unfurl. The single-leafed stems will not produce a flower that season.  The forked stems bearing two leaves will have a tight flower bud nestled at the base of the two petioles.  By the end of April and often the first week of May the lovely white, waxy flowers begin to open.

Found in rich woods, thickets, and even roadsides from Quebec and Ontario south to Florida and Texas, this species is now placed in the Berberidaceae or barberry family although it once was included in the Ranunculaceae or buttercup family. Linnaeus assigned the binomium (genus and species) of Podophyllum from “podos” meaning foot, “phylum” meaning leaf, and “peltatum” meaning shield.  Other common names are mandrake, wild lemon, and raccoon berry.

The flowers of Mayapple are up to two inches in diameter with six sepals that are shed early in blooming, 6-9 white waxy petals, numerous yellow stamens (usually twice the number of petals) with the anthers opening down the side, and a pistil with a large stigma.  The flowers lack nectar, but offer the native bees and bumblebees that visit them a rich pollen reward. There is a fragrance to the flower that is a bit pungent or musky.  Frequency of successful pollination is often not high in Mayapple flowers, even though there is extended anthesis (shedding of pollen) as well as receptiveness of the stigma if pollination has not been accomplished. Queen bumblebees are especially attracted to Mayapple flowers to collect pollen for rearing workers, and thus may be primary pollinators.

Fruit set rates are often low for individual colonies of plants and mature fruits are even rarer.  Mature fruits resemble a small lemon-colored, egg-shaped fruit that is technically a berry one-and-a-half to two inches long.  The fruit matures by August, and if the seeds remain in the same area as parent colony, the germination rate is low.  If the seed does germinate, the seedling may be shaded out by other individuals the next spring. The Eastern box turtle is thought to be the primary seed disperser.  There is some evidence that the white-footed mouse, the gray squirrel, and the grackle may also serve as seed dispersers along with opossum, raccoon, fox, and even black bear.

To humans, the immature fruit as well as the other plant parts are poisonous, although there are modern medicinal uses of the rhizome.

Mayapple may put up to 40 percent of its energy into its underground rhizome compared to only 8 percent of its energy into sexual reproduction.  The rhizome, a horizontal underground stem, is the main method of producing new plants.  A colony of Mayapple plants may all have developed from a single seed.  A seed once it germinates will not form a rhizome until it is over five years old and may not produce blooms until a plant is 12 years old.  Colonies grow at a rate of 4 to 6 inches per year, and very large colonies may be more than 100 years old.  One colony may contain up to 1,000 shoots.  If an individual plant has produced mature fruit during a given season, it will have decreased rhizome growth and a decreased chance of being forked the next year and bearing flowers.  If a plant does not produce fruit, or if it is a single-leafed plant, the leaves usually senesce (die back) by early summer.  Leaves persist in plants that have maturing fruits.

As mentioned above, immature fruits as well as the vegetative structures of Mayapple are poisonous.  As with many drugs, there is a fine line between poison and effective medicinal use. American Indians ate the ripe fruits and used a number of medicinal Mayapple preparations. The list of uses by American Indian include treatments for rheumatism, as a laxative as well as treatment for diarrhea, ulcers, sores, liver and bile problems, hemorrhoids, headaches, diuretic, whooping cough, cholera, pneumonia, problems of male and female reproductive tracts, as a purgative, and for anthelminthic (worming) purposes. Reportedly, individuals of some Indian tribes even used rhizomes of this plant to commit suicide.

In the 1800s and early 1900s, Mayapple extract was used as an active ingredient in Carter’s Little Liver Pills; today, it is used as an extract called “Podophyllin” to remove genital warts.  Drugs derived from the rhizome are being used in Europe, and are being tested in this country to treat forms of cancer such as cancer of the testes, two forms of lung cancer, Kaposi sarcoma, and some forms of leukemia.  It also has been used to treat syphilis.  There is some evidence that American Indians used this plant also to treat forms of cancer such as ovarian and skin cancer.  Modern research shows evidence of Mayapple extracts that inhibit cell division, thus blocking new growth of tumors.

Mayapple’s ripe fruits are edible and there are recipes for jellies and pies as well as the extraction of its juice to add to lemonade.

This spring, savor the beauty of Mayapple.  Be very cautious if you wish to sample the fruit, but do it soon, before the forest animals enjoy it instead!

 –Marion Blois Lobstein, Botany Chair, Prince William Wildflower Society, Assoc. Professor Biology at NVCC-Manassas Campus, Retired

[Photographs: Mayapple photos, Marion Lobstein, permission of author]