Herb to Know: Mayapple

Everything you wanted to know about the hardy mayapple.

| April/May 2004

  • The hanging blooms of P. ‘Kaleidoscope’ are the most eye-catching of the Podophyllums.

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.

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