Two Great Locations, One Organization
By Katie Stannard
Mayapple flower

Mayapple plants with flower showing.

Unfurling mayapple leaves

Mayapple leaves just beginning to emerge in spring.

Emerging mayapple leaves

Mayapple leaves almost fully emerged.

This week’s native plant is mayapple, Podophyllum peltatum. Held aloft by thick stems, a sea of umbrella-shaped mayapple leaves is a distinctive sight–especially when rain or dew makes them shimmer in the early morning sunlight.
Called “mayapple” due to its apple blossom-like blooms which emerge in May, common names include wild mandrake, Indian apple, raccoon berry, and wild lemon.
Mayapple’s native range extends across eastern North America and south to Texas. Spreading by rhizomes, a single root may form an entire colony. It prefers the moist shady areas of riverbanks, wetlands, and deciduous forests.
Known as one of the spring ephemerals, mayapple appears before deciduous trees fully leaf out, then fades away with the shading provided by leaf cover, augmented by heat of the summer. With attractive, interesting leaves and flowers, it’s a nice addition to woodland gardens with moist, rich soil conditions similar to a forest floor ecosystem.
Mayapple flower close up

Close up of a mayapple flower.

Field of mayapple

A “forest” of mayapple plants.

Unripe mayapple fruit

An unripe mayapple fruit.

Ripe mayapple fruit

Ripe mayapple fruits.

Two closed leaves wrap around the top of the growing stem, looking like a paper drink umbrella. The 6-8 inch leaves unfurl when the stem reaches around 18 inches tall. Each plant produces a single, white to rose-colored nodding flower at the axil, where the leaf joins the stem. Fruit is a golden yellow, larger version of a lemon, ripening by late summer and used for jellies and jams.
Except for the ripe mayapple fruit, all plant parts contain podophyllotoxin, which is highly toxic when consumed. Some Native American peoples used mayapple for a range of purposes including as an insecticide; a root decoction was utilized as a purgative or laxative.
According to one source, the podophyllotoxin from mayapple resin became the first commercially available botanical medicine. In clinical use worldwide now are the semisynthetic anti-cancer drugs etoposide and teniposide, derivatives of podophyllotoxin from mayapple roots and rhizomes.
Sources: unitedplantsavers.org, wildflower.org, hort.extension.wisc.edu. Michiganflora.net photos: green fruit: G. Vaclavek; ripe fruit: A. A. Reznicek; emerging leaves: L. Wallis.
#nativeplantoftheweek #matthaeinichols #umich #umichnature
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