“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.
The name comes from the Greek, podos or “foot” and phyllon or “leaf”. Pelatum also describes the leaf, and means “shield-shaped”. The common name refers to the May blooming of its flower.
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 part of a tiny genus of four species worldwide with the other 3 being Asian. It is thought our native Mayapple comes from the Asian plants, and was brought across the Bering Strait.
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.
Benefits to Wildlife
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.
Even a Southern drink was made from wine, sugar and the Mayapple fruit.
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:
Come Join Us:
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 [email protected]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.
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69 Replies to “Wildflower Tale-Mayapple”
I did not know Mayapple to be, “part of a tiny genus of four species worldwide with the other 3 being Asian.” I found that interesting because coming from Pennsylvania and currently living in NY, I see them in great numbers. I even photographed a huge stand of them before leaving for PA.
I also did not realize they have dwindling numbers due to picking for medicinal purpose. It is hard to imagine so many using them for this reason. I attended a talk by a Native American woman who specialized in holistic and natural medicine. She spoke at length on Mayapple, but again, did not mention what the two points you reported. She had many recipes for using Mayapple also. It really is a wonderful plant, I like how it grows.
How wonderful to hear a healer speak…this plant has such a rich history. My understanding is that the plant is picked over in many places and I see stands here but not great numbers. I think much of the loss of the plant now is also due to habitat loss.
The most amazing thing I found was that Mayapples are a the main ingredient in many new cancer drugs. They are so highly regarded that they are now looking to cultivate the American Mayapple for cancer drugs thought to create a stronger drug than the Assia varieties.
That is interesting, I hope they find it really effective too.
It would be great to find that our natives could actually help heal us today….
Hi Donna…what a great, informative post. I remember seeing Mayapples for the first time when we moved here. My hubby knew what they were because he’s from TN. They look so amazing covering the floor of the woods. I didn’t know that they have a flower because I’ve never seen a Mayapple up close. I’m going to our woods to check it out!
Hope you find the lovely flower Christy…such a delight!
I love to see Mayapples romping in the woodlands…I have a few in my garden and look forward to it spreading into a nice sized colony. I heard the cutest saying about Mayapples from one of the leaders of a hike during the Tennessee Naturalists classes~She said dryly while pointing to a mayapple with two stems, “You know what they say about mayapples?…”If there’s forking, there will be flowers!” Happy WW to you. gail
Oh Gail I love that little saying 🙂
I love seeing these little umbrellas popping open at the edges of our property every spring – there are huge swaths of them along the edges of the woods as well. Thanks for lots of new info about them!
How lucky you are indeed Donalyn to have so many!
I have tried growing mayapples once without success. I found the folklore and other bits of information quite interesting.
So glad you enjoyed the post Patty.
The folklore is most interesting about the mayapples. They are a very nice wildflower. I haven’t tried an ‘apple’ yet but may give it a try!
I have lots of flowers this year so should have lots of apples…I will have to give them a try too, but in moderation! Let me know if you do give them a try.
What an extraordinary plant!
Wouldn’t it be fun to set up a business selling umbrellas like these in their droopy state (and a fashion to go with them)?
I agree Esther…they are quite fashionable!
I was intrigued about mayapples being used in cancer medicines. But as I read on, it began to sound a bit like the magic elixirs being sold by a snake oil salesmen! It seems either this plant can cure just about anything, or kill you, depending upon how much one takes, I suppose.
It does seem to good to be true although the cancer medicine is quite real…they are experimenting further with Mayapples to create more cancer drugs at the drug companies and certain key compounds of the Mayapple are key ingredients in many cancer drugs currently.
I adore the fact that it is either delicious or completely deadly – pick one. When they first emerge they really earn their mandrake name – and this year being a very cold, cold spring, they are much smaller. Hmmmmm. A beautiful plant and one of the few that I appreciate for its ability to colonize.
Mine are in a protected area and seem to be quite tall due to that protection…I hope to move the colony to a few other spots in the garden.
A great plant for the shady bed! I have a couple of the Asian ones where I’m living now in the PNW, but when I lived on the east coast, I had this native one that you’ve profiled.
Alison I have never seen the Asian plants….I bet they are quite wonderful!
I wasn’t familiar with this pretty little woodland gem – I checked and here in Canada, their distribution is mostly in Ontario, rarely in Quebec, and sporadically in the Maritimes. We don’t have them here in the west – what a shame! I would like to see them growing wild. Thanks for this wonderful post!
Oh that is too bad Sheryl, but if you ever come east just check out the edge of the woods in May. Glad you enjoyed the post.
When I was young, my family camped every summer in the Smoky Mountains. The mayapple was probably the first wildflower I could identify. I just love the way they spread across the forest floor. I’m sure they provide shelter and sanctuary for fairies!
Beth welcome and I hope to check out your blog more. I am retiring this year after 30 years in education and hope to play in the garden more.
You have some lovely Mayapple memories and I suspect the fairies live beneath mine with a host of other creatures!
We see them beside the roads here. Great photos and thanks for all the interesting information about them!
Thanks for visiting Lea…glad you enjoyed the Mayapples in NY.
It’s a detailed and very informative write-up of this wonderful wildflower. Great to learn about it!
Thanks Autumn Belle…it was fun doing the research!
Well- researched Donna and good to see a shade plant featured. So intrigued with its looks that searched for uk suppliers – hybrids of these and some Asian ones produce fascinatiing leaves – dotty, square etc. Gives a whole different slant to the nursery rhyme – here we go gathering nuts in May [from knots, probably of hawthorn/May blossom]
Thanks Laura…yes the Asian Mayapples are quite unique and showy…I wonder about nursery rhymes sometimes…they feature things I never dreamed they referred to…perhaps the nuts in May could be these ‘apples’.
I have come to know about this plant recently from someone who sells native plants. He didn’t have any then. Don’t they look curious and unique? I can imagine thumbellina sitting under the umbrella. How much of the plant to does one have to eat to die?
According to all my sources they are quite poisonous in small amounts except the fruit although moderation is recommended with them. If you cannot fins any where you re, I would love to dig a few and send them…they would look lovely under your beautiful trees.
An interesting plant with so many uses and tales associated with it. I don’t think I’ve seen one so thanks for the information.
So glad you enjoyed this most fascinating native plant Shirley!
very interesting post Donna, thanks for all that information
You are most welcome…glad you enjoyed it!
What a neat plant… I don’t know if I have ever seen it, but I will look for it now… Michelle
If you can’t find it let me know and I’ll send you some when I can 🙂
They are lovely…and such a distinctive leaf.
There was a little group of them in pots at the nursery, no tags all of those years…and I always meant to look them up. This was before the age of home computers…so lots of books would need to be consulted. And then when I did find out their name, I kept getting them mixed up.
Needless to say, they remained untagged.
Now I wish I had tagged them, and shown them to more customers.
What a wonderful memory Jen…You have such a great love and interes in plants…you must have been such an asset to the nursery….love to have your expertise at any nursery I may wander through.
Great plant, and one of my faves, too! I noticed the ones that grow in partial shade have slightly bigger flowers than the ones I have in deep shade. Never realized that until tonight, actually, when I was in Milwaukee for my Master Naturalist class. Mayapples are so fun to watch emerging from the soil in the spring–they really do look like closed umbrellas, and then they open so fast after a day or too.
I mean “a day or two.” Or “a day or so”… 😉
🙂 🙂 🙂
I think Mayapples are one of the most fascinating plants to emerge Beth…I too look forward to them every spring.
I have a “stand” of Mayapples that biggers every year. I love the way they look — and had no idea of all its medicinal uses and that you could even use the fruit! The only thing I don’t like about them is as they wane, they look ragged for quite a few weeks before the other perennials in the bed come in lush. Small complaint though, as many comment on them and enjoy them.
Agreed Jim…my Mayapples come up over the bloodroot and then other plants like ferns, hosta and columbines hide the Mayapples.
lovely wildflower – I love that kind of subtle coloured flower, and the name mayapple sounds like it should grow in a fairy bower.
I couldn’t agree more Catmint…I do hope my fairies appreciate that I plan to plant more around the garden 🙂
I only recently bought a Mayapple plant and so found it interesting to read your post. I am wondering how tall the plant grows. (Did I miss that in your post?)
You did not miss it but I missed putting that info in the post…I just added it..thanks Jennifer…the plant grows to about a foot high when it reaches its maturity. Mine have finally reached that height and they have grown in quite dense.
Such an interesting post! I’ve often admired these plants, but I’ve never seen the little flower underneath. I’ve heard of some of its uses in folk medicine before, but didn’t know it was being used today in cancer research. Thanks for the info about not planting under a pine tree–that’s exactly where I would have planted them, and then wondered why they didn’t thrive!
Oh Rose so glad I could help..there is nothing worse than planting something and it doesn’t grow….I hope you enjoy growing this plant.
I love the folklore of native plants. Mayapples are one I don’t grow in my garden, perhaps I’ll get a few from a friend.
Well written article on this plant.
Well worth growing as they are an easy plant to grow and maintain. Thank you for your kind words…they mean a lot Judith!
Hi Donna, sorry I missed your latest posts. They were not showing up in my Blogger Reading List. I just subscribed so I will get your updates by email. The Reading List should still work, even though they got rid of Google Reader. These wildflowers are so unique! They do look like little umbrellas, never seen anything like it, so cute 🙂 Happy Memorial Day Weekend! 🙂
Thanks for your continued support Loredana. And I do love this unique plant…I am sure it will inspire a poem one of these days!
I would love to have mayapples some day, maybe in the woodland edge along the far side of the driveway. I would love it if they naturalized and spread.
Jean I would love to share some of my Mayapples with you someday….just say the word!
I have never seen or heard of this plant. It’s strange how the same plant can be both poisonous and beneficial.
I find many of our natives are curious in this regard…but the use of it as a Chemo drug really interested me.
Interesting post, Donna. Mayapple grows here in New Hampshire but I have never seen any here on our property.
I have added the ones I have but I love to watch at the edge of moist woods in May as I drive the open roads for lovely stands of these natives.
This is fascinating as I’ve never heard of this plant before! Very much enjoyed reading all about it.
It is quite a unique plant Cathy and I love having it growing in my garden.
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