“Down in the shady woodland where fern-fronds are uncurled,
A host of green umbrellas are swiftly now unfurled.
Do they shelter fairy people from sudden pelting showers?
Or are the leaves but sunshades to shield the waxen flowers?…”
–Mandrakes, Minnie Curtis Wait (1901)
I have long been intrigued by a very special wildflower that covers the deciduous forest edges and floors in May. Mayapple or Podophyllum peltatum is part of the Barberry Family (Berberidaceae). I really love this plant as a native ground cover, and see it often at the edge of the woods on my way to work.
This plant has many folk names due in large part to the fruit that appears in summer under the leaves. Indian apple, Wild mandrake, Mayflower, Pomme de mai, wild mandrake (not related to the common mandrake), hog apple, wild lemon (as the fruit is said to look and taste like a lemon), umbrella leaf, raccoon berry (because raccoons can often be seen eating the berries in the spring) are but a few of the names.
The foliage is long-lived and easy to spot as it grows in large colonies. Mayapples will emerge with one or 2 leaves. Those stems with 2 leaves joined will produce a flower although first year plants will not flower. The large, umbrella-like leaves of Mayapple are showy and about 6 inches across as the plant grows to a foot high. The leaves remain closed until the stems stretch to about 8-12 inches. You can see the flower bud at the top of the tightly curled leaves as they emerge. In the picture above, the flower is in the middle of the leaves. It looks like a light green bean.
A single, white to rose-colored flower grows under the leaves and is hard to photograph. When the flower is cross-pollinated the fruit is produced, and resembles a large, lemon-shaped berry. The flower here appears yellow because of the lack of light beneath the leaves.
The mature fruits are edible and quite tasty. However, they are poisonous when green. Do not try to eat them until they are yellow and soft. The scent of the fruit is said to become more pleasant as it ripens. They say you can perfume a room with a few fruit and I intend to try it out.
This plant is easy to grow from rhizomes, and I grow it in my shade garden. Mayapples love shade or part shade in moist to slightly dry conditions in loamy or sandy soil. While it grows well under deciduous trees, it does not like to grow under pines.
Mayapples will crowd out other delicate wildflowers so be careful where you place them. And do not you plant them where you have to mow as mowing will kill them.
People can eat the ripe berries in limited amounts, even though they may have a laxative effect. The unripe green berries are poisonous as are all other parts of the plant. The flavor of the ripe berry is said to be bland or tasting like an overripe melon although some thought they tasted like a lemon.
Where Are They Found
Mayapples are native to the eastern North American woods, meadow edges, shaded riverbanks and shaded moist roadsides.
Do not remove this wildflower from its natural habitat as its numbers are dwindling because it is picked for medicinal purposes. There are growers you can find, and I am happy to share rhizomes for those in the Eastern US.
Mayapples attract bumblebees, long-tongued bees and other insects. They produce no nectar, but lots of pollen.
Mammals avoid the foliage because it is poisonous and bitter. Box turtles, squirrels, opossums, raccoons, and skunks eat the ripe berries. One study found the seeds germinated best when they were digested by the turtles.
Folklore and Tales
Mayapples conjure up great stories. Mayapples in bloom were called green umbrellas, which caused children to cry that the ‘umbrellas were out’.
Mayapples were said to be a favorite of pigs and boys years ago.
Many herbalists have found Mayapples are a powerful medicine as they act on every part of your system. Today the plant is used to treat skin cancer and many other cancers as it has become a key ingredient in cancer drugs to block the cell division of the cancer.
In the 1950s doctors experimented using the plant to treat paralysis.
It is said Mayapples were tried by Captain John Smith in VA in 1612 who described it as a pleasant fruit like a lemon. And Samuel Champlain was given the fruit by the Huron tribe in 1619 and said it tasted like a fig.
Even Euell Gibbons was fond of Mayapples and made it into marmalade and squeezed some in lemonade.
Native Americans used Mayapples for a wide variety of medicinal purposes and as an insecticide. They were used by some tribes to commit suicide because the plant is so poisonous. Other tribes used the poison as an insecticide to kill potato bugs and corn worms.
The rhizome of the Mayapple has been used for a variety of medicinal purposes, originally by Native tribes and later by other settlers. Shawnees used the boiled root as a laxative. Other tribes used the boiled root to cure stomach aches. It has also been used topically for warts.
The ripe fruit can be used in jellies.
There is an old mountain superstition that a girl who pulls up the root will soon become pregnant. This tale comes from the story that the true mandrake, which is similar looking, was sold to help with fertility.
In the Language of Flowers Mayapple is not found, but Mandrake, one of its folk names, means Rarity. Mayapple’s plant family, Barberry, means Sourness of Temper.
He is happiest who hath power to gather wisdom from a flower. ~Mary Howitt
Check out other posts in the series, Wildflower Tale:
Seasonal Celebrations is a time for marking the change of seasons and what is happening in your part of the world during this time. I hope you will join in by creating a post telling us how you celebrate this time of year whether summer or winter or something else. Share your traditions, holidays, gardens and celebrations in pictures, poetry or words starting June 1st.
And it seems so appropriate to collaborate with Beth and her Lessons Learned meme. What lessons have you learned this past season of spring here in the North and fall in the South. Then tell us about your wishes, desires and dreams for this new season.The rules are simple. Just create a post that talks about lessons learned and/or seasonal celebrations. If you are joining in for both memes please leave a comment on both our blog posts. Or if you are choosing to join only one meme, leave a comment on that blog post. Make sure to include a link with your comment.
Beth and I will do a summary post of our respective memes on the solstice (the 21st of June). And we will keep those posts linked on a page on our blog. Your post should be linked in the weekend before the equinox to give us enough time to include your post in our summary. And if you link in a bit late, never fear we will include it on the special blog page (which I still have to create). The badges here can be used in your post. So won’t you join in the celebration!!
Next up on the blog: Next Monday will be another Simply The Best-Herbs. And June 1st means it is time for Seasonal Celebrations.
I am linking in with Michelle@Rambling Woods for her Nature Notes meme. It is a great way to see what is happening in nature around the world every Wednesday.
I hope you will join me for my posts once a month at Beautiful Wildlife Garden. See my most current post now. Next one is up on May 28th.
As always, I’ll be joining Tootsie Time’sFertilizer Friday.
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