Monday, May 20, 2013

Native Species Profile - Mayapple

If you go into the woods in eastern North America during the month of May, you are more than likely to find a large colony of 12 to 18inch tall plants with large umbrella-like leaves.

Glossy 6 to 8 inch leaves are the most prominent feature of this plant

A pair of these 6 - 8 inch wide, glossy, deeply lobed leaves grows at the top of each plant . The plant emerges from the ground as a single pale green stem.  At about two-thirds of the total height of the plant, this stem divides in two forming a wide vee.  One leaf grows at the terminus of each stem.

The leaves are suspended like umbrellas above the forest floor.

A single pale green or white flower grows at the base of the vee formed by the stems.  This flower be up to two inch across and is quite showy, but it can be difficult to see from above because of the leaves.  Each flower has from 6 to 9 petals that surround a pale yellow center. In Mid-Michigan, these flowers can be found between late April and early June.

A pair of leaves tops each plant.

A single flower grows at the bases of the wide vee formed by the leaf stems.

Each flower has 6 to 9 petals and a pale yellow center

Upon pollination, flower will develop into a 1 to 2 inch diameter berry that resembles a small unripe lemon.  This fruit is pale green in color when unripe that eventually turns to a mottled yellow as the fruit ripens.  the fruit ripens in mid to late summer.

A  2-inch diameter, pale-green berry forms after pollination.

So what is the name of this unique plant?  It's the Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum), also known as American Mandrake.  The Mayapple is found in deciduous forests, shaded meadows, and roadsides throughout the eastern United States and Canada.  The plant prefers moist soil and can often be found growing in large colonies in floodplains.  The plant spreads through thick rhizomes. 

The roots, stem and leaves of this plant are toxic, as is the unripe fruit.  The plant contains an alkali based toxin called podophyllin.  In large doses, this toxin may be deadly.

Despite the presence of this toxin, Mayapple is one of the most commonly foraged wild fruits in the United States. When the fruit is ripe it is no longer toxic - it is is not only edible but delicious. Many fruits employ this same strategy to ensure that their seeds are not spread until maturity.  The fruits soften as they ripen and only become ripe in mid- to late-summer.  When ripe, the fruits are mottles yellow and have a unique "tropical" taste that reminds some of a cross between mango, guava, apple, and lemon.

If you choose to forage for this fruit, ingesting a very small piece will tell you if it is ripe or not - if your mouth begins to tingle because of the alkalis, the fruit is not ripe, do not consume any more.  The ripe fruit may be eaten raw, but are more commonly made into jelly.

Basic Information

Podophyllum peltatum

Height:  12-18” tall

Habitat:  wet woodlands, open woodlands,  floodplains, shady meadows

Flower Color:  white

Bloom Time:  April – early June

Fruit:  berry, lemon-shaped, 1-2” diameter, turns yellow when ripe

1 comment:

  1. Have this growing all over and glad to know it is toxic. Thanks for the information.