Plant of the Week
Latin: Podophyllum peltatum
Mayapple is one of the most noticeable of our early spring wild flowers, not
because of the flowers, but because of the large colonies of leaves produced in
the woodlands. While a few gardeners criticize it for its wandering ways, most
embrace it as a free spirited wanderer amongst the tree trunks.
Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) is one of the herbaceous members of
the barberry family. It can colonize a large area by means of its underground
rhizome. It occurs naturally throughout the eastern woodlands.
Seedling mayapples spend their first four years of life with a vertical root
system and just a single leaf. After the fourth year, the lower portion of the
vertical root develops an axillary bud that begins to grow horizontally. At the
end of this rhizome, a resting bud forms, and the following spring, a new leaf
emerges from this bud. Once the knee-high, umbrella-like leaf emerges one or
more buds at the base of that leaf begin growing, subsequently terminating in
resting buds for the following spring. The following spring, the old bud and the
new buds will all have leaves.
During the first several years, the mayapple leaf is round and unbranched,
too juvenile to flower. When adulthood is reached, the stem -- most authorities
agree it is a stem, not a petiole -- terminates in a "Y" shaped fork with two
leaves. Nestled in the fork is the single, white mayapple flower.
The fruit is a berry about the size and shape of an egg with a thick yellow
rind. Fruit only form when the flowers are cross-pollinated, so colonies that
typically produce fruit probably arose from more than one seedling. When ripe,
the edible fruit gives off a strong fruity smell. It is suggested for jams and
marmalades, but I have yet to meet anyone who actually has eaten mayapple
The first European encounter with mayapple was in 1615 when the French
explorer Samuel de Champlain encountered the plants being cultivated by the
Huron Indians in modern day Canada. It is believed that the mayapples found in
Canada today are there because of Indian cultivation after the last ice age.
The Cherokees use the roots in traditional medicine but caution that only
those portions of the rhizome between the nodes should be used, as the joints
are poisonous. They use boiled root as a purgative, a drop of fresh root juice
to cure deafness and powdered root to cure various ulcers and sores.
Modern medicine has found that an extract of dried rhizomes called
podophyllotoxin blocks cell division, so it has been used extensively as a base
for several anti-cancer drugs. An extract is also used topically to treat
genital herpes. In 1970, 130 tons of the roots were harvested in the US. But
about that time, it was discovered that a related Himalayan species had a higher
concentration of the drug -- and the labor rate in northern India is incredibly
cheap -- so buying moved to southern Asia. Today, that species, P. emodi,
is nearly extinct in the wild so there is interest in developing sustained
cultivation of the American mayapple.
While only one species of mayapple is found in the New World, a baker's dozen
are found in southern Asia and western China. These wild mayapples are finding
their way into cultivation thanks to the efforts of plantsmen such as Dan
Hinkley at Heronswood Nursery in Washington.
Our native mayapple is easy to grow in the garden. Any reasonably fertile,
well- drained site will work. They prefer areas that are moist in the spring,
but summer drought does not bother them in the least because, when it gets too
dry, their leaves die away and await another season. They'll grow in full sun,
but to my mind, they always look a bit exposed in sunny locations. Propagation
is easy by early spring division.
By: Gerald Klingaman, retired
Extension News -
May 9, 2003
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