Mayapple – A Spring Ephemeral and Summer Poison

  • Post published:08/09/2021
  • Post comments:2 Comments
Mayapple early

Over the years I saw mayapples (Podophyllum peltatum) growing around trees making a great ground cover. For several years I admired the large leaves but never saw any apples so the name mayapple seemed very odd. Even  so I planted a few on our hugel. They flourished. But I never saw a flower. Mayapples emerge from the ground in April. This photo was taken on April 26, 2020.

Mayapples in full growth.

Disregard the weeds to the left. The mayapples grow between 12-17 inches and prefer some shade in damp rich soil. This photo was taken a couple of years ago and I still had not seen a flower.

May apple with its fruit in

I missed the flower for years, but last year I did see the fruit. They look like limes in June, but they must not be eaten while green. The green fruit is deadly. It will ripen and is edible only when it is fully golden. Even then, do not eat any of the seeds. Obviously, even though I never saw the flowers or fruits until last year, the fruit seeds drop and more mayapples will grow in the spring. I had to really twist myself to see the fruits and get a picture.

Me and Mayapples

This photo was taken in mid-May this year. I finally got myself under all the foliage at the right time of year. I think we can all agree that the flower is somewhat similar to an apple blossom. However it does have other names: American mandrake, wild mandrake, Devil’s apple, Indian apple, and duck’s foot which possibly got its name because of the shape of the foliage.

These plant names may also suggest that the plant was used medicinally. In the Ethnobotanical Leaflet I  found information – “The plants long, thin rhizome is the most poisonous part, but also the most useful (since the 1820’s the plant has been recognized as being of medicinal value in the official U.S.A Pharmacopoeia) because it contains high concentrations of the compounds podophyllotoxin and alpha and beta peltatin, all of which have anti-cancer properties. During the last twenty or thirty years, attention has be drawn by pharmacologists and medical researches
to the fact that Podophyllum contains chemical agents responsible for anti-cancer activity. Some preparations are used for treatment of venereal wart (Condyloma acuminatum) and skin Cancers.”
The Edible Wild Food site also has good information.

Great groundcover – but I have no plans to use Mayapple fruits for any kind of eating!

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Jeane

    I have a few in the far back of my yard! I always thought the foliage curiously attractive, especially as it comes up when not much else is growing back there. I’ve no plans to ever attempt eating the fruit though. Leave ’em for the squirrels, or to just seed more to grow.

  2. Pat

    Jeane – I’m glad to me someone else who has curious – and attractive – leaves. The foliage is fascinating in itselv. As you saw, it took me a long time to see the flower and fruit.

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