Herb to Know: Mayapple

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The hanging blooms of P. ‘Kaleidoscope’ are the most eye-catching of the Podophyllums.
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Genus:Podophyllum peltatum
Family: Berberidaceae,

• Barberry family
• Hardy in Zones 4 through 9

What better harbinger of spring than the herbaceous shoots of the native mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum), thrusting themselves upward through the forest floor like unopened umbrellas? Extremely hardy (Zones 4 to 9), this eastern North American native easily is recognized in open, damp woodlands from Canada to Florida in its annual spring show.

The name, Podophyllum, comes from the Greek podos (foot) and phyllon (leaf), which alludes to a fanciful resemblance of the leaf to an aquatic bird’s foot: hence, the seldom used common name of duck’s foot. More often, it is known as mayapple (our native mayapple blooms in May). The beautiful but exceedingly toxic plant has several other perplexing common names that lend themselves to confusion: wild lemon (presumably because the ripened berries resemble tiny lemons), ground lemon, devil’s apple, hog apple, raccoon berry, Indian apple and American mandrake. Note: Mayapple is not to be mistaken for the European mandrake (Mandragora officinarum), with which it has been confused.

Mayapple: The Plant

The genus Podophyllum consists of about seven species of perennial, rhizomatous herbs, only one of which, P. peltatum, is native to North America. The remaining species are from Asia; their tendency to interbreed makes accurate identification difficult. The mayapple’s leaves, which top 1-foot-high stems(petiole), initially appear burnished with a dull coppery sheen, but as the deeply lobed, palmate leaves continue to unfurl, the color fades to a vivid glossy green. It spreads by an underground creeping rhizome, which may become quite long and, in a happy situation, will colonize freely to make a wonderful groundcover.

Single-leafed plants are too immature to flower; plants with two or more leaves (usually in the third year) will develop a large flower bud from the petiole junction beneath the leaves. This will become a large, 1- to 2-inch-wide, nodding solitary flower in May or June. It is a waxy flower of white to greenish-white. Its odor is nauseating. The berry is green when immature and develops into a large yellow, blotched ovoid 1 to 2 inches long. This fleshy “apple” ripens in July. It has an insipid taste with a very slight hint of strawberry. The ripened fruit is the only edible part of the plant, as all other parts in the green state are fatally toxic. It contains 12 or more dark-brown seeds.

Other species of mayapple (P. delavayi, P. difforme, P. hexandrum, P. pleianthum, P. versipelle) are from China or elsewhere in the Himalayan region. These Asian species represent an absolutely stunning collection of foliage plants with a variety of angular leaf shapes, extremely colorful leaf mottling and typically large, pendant, blood red to dark burgundy flowers. No two plants are alike, due to the rich leaf coloration and mottling patterns. P. delavayi boasts new, bright-red growth upon emergence and holds its color well into the growing season. It has five to eight deeply cut lobes with each lobe also deeply cut into three additional lobes. Resembling a fancy begonia leaf with its mottled patterns of dark green and dark purple bands, it blooms in clusters of one to six dark purple or dark pink pendant flowers.

P. difforme is an introduction from China with mostly angular or sharply polygonal shaped leaves with a characteristic whitish spot in the center of the green. The emergent juvenile foliage is striking with purple mottling and an almost rectangular or boxy shape. It has a purple zoning pattern along the edge of the leaf, which eventually fades to green as it matures. This particular species has up to five stiffly pendant flowers (3/4 inch long) that are a deep russet or salmon color. Chinese mayapple (P. hexandrum), has marble foliage upon emergence, followed by a large up-facing, white flower or a rarer pink flower that appears before leaves mature. The attractive red fruit is not edible.

P. pleianthum from Szechwan, China, has larger green leaves (8 inches) with six to eight lobes. The flowers, in a pendant cluster of two to six, look like inflated balloons, with an exterior color of a deep purple (reminds me of the flowers of Fritillaria meleagris) to garnet red and a paler interior color. P. versipelle, from Tibet and China, is a taller species with highly ornamental foliage. The smaller leaves are deeply lobed and blotched, splashed or zoned with purple markings. It has up to 15 deep red to purple pendant flowers. P. ‘Kaleidoscope’ is a result of interbreeding among species. It has the most stunning foliage color of all. Typically with a large central patch of white or silver, its foliage is edged with deep purple that seems to radiate outward in a loose concentric pattern. It has large leaves and deep blood red, pendant flowers with drooping petals up to 2 inches long.

Growing Mayapple

Podophyllums are great for moist and shaded areas in cultivation. While our native mayapple is extremely hardy, the Chinese species are less so (Zones 7 to 9). There is a rumor among growers that the more colorful the foliage, the better the winter hardiness. All enjoy a warm, shady, wind-sheltered location. The plant prefers an acid soil (pH 4 to 7). For best results, grow in a deep, rich soil with plenty of humus to provide adequate moisture through the summer months.

The Chinese podophyllums, especially P. hexandrum, benefit from more summer moisture than P. peltatum. Keep them free of weeds and avoid chemical fertilizers. Teas made from compost, organic matter or organic fish fertilizers work well. Propagate by rhizome division in spring or by seed in spring or fall. (Note: continual handling of the rhizome may cause systemic poisoning due to skin absorption, and eyes are particularly sensitive to contact.)

Other Uses For Mayapple

Our native mayapple should be considered highly toxic. All the podophyllums contain the active principle podophyllin. It is a resin contained in all plant parts but most concentrated in the rhizome. It has the ability to affect cellular growth by causing abnormalities in dividing cells of both animal and plant tissue.

Native Americans recognized mayapple as having both poisonous and healing qualities. They ingested the rhizome of mayapple as a purgative to induce vomiting or as a very strong laxative. The plant isn’t one to fool around with: Some tribes even used it to commit suicide. In topical applications, they applied it as a poultice to remove warts or tumorous growths. The juice of fresh roots was dripped into ears to improve poor hearing. Early settlers used the dried powder of rhizomes as a general cure-all for a plethora of maladies: dysentery, gonorrhea, syphilis, cholera, jaundice, rheumatism and prostate problems.

Horticulturalists have used podophyllums for inducing desirable mutations in other plants. Medical researchers have used them to extract powerful anti-tumor drugs such as etoposide. If ingested, podophyllin may cause abnormalities or even fetal death in pregnant women.

Plant Sources

• Collector’s Nursery
16804 NE 102nd Ave.
Battle Ground, WA 98604
(360) 574-3832
P. peltatum and P. ‘Kaleidoscope’

• Heronswood Nursery
7530 NE 288th St.
Kingston, WA 98346
(360) 297-4172
P. difforme, P. hexandrum, P. peltatum, P. pleianthum and P. versipelle

Andrew Van Hevelingen is a plant lover and frequent contributor to The Herb Companion who enjoys writing, photography and gardening at his Newberg, Oregon, home.

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