As the weather warms in late winter and early spring, the Mayapple plants erupt from the forest floor.
A single flower is produced on each plant at the point where the leaf stems emerge.
Mayapple is an herbaceous perennial that stands around 18 in (45 cm) tall and has just two big glossy leaves on long stalks (petioles). The leaves are peltate; that is, attached to the petiole near the center of the underside rather than at the leaf margin. They are palmately lobed with 5-9 deeply cleft lobes and can be up to 12 in (18 cm) in diameter. A single white to pale pink flower arises on a short peduncle from the axil where the two leaf petioles emerge. The flower’s peduncle is shorter than the leaf petioles and so the flower nods inconspicuously beneath the umbrella-like leaves. The flower is cup shaped with 6-9 waxy petals, is sweetly fragrant, and is about 2 in (5 cm) across. Plants that are not flowering have just one leaf. The ripe fruit (technically a berry) is yellow (sometimes reddish), more or less egg shaped, and 1-2 in (2.5-5 cm) long. The "apples" are edible with what some describe as a lemony flavor. Mayapples spread vegetatively on rhizomes, and are typically found in colonies sweeping across the forest floor, creating a low canopy of little umbrellas. Like other spring ephemeral wildflowers, Mayapple appears in early spring, blooms, then goes dormant, withering and disappearing by midsummer.
Location Podophyllum peltatum ranges from Ontario and Quebec to eastern Texas and northern Florida. Mayapple is a common spring ephemeral wildflower in mixed hardwood forests, often associated with trilliums (Trillium underwoodii, for instance), trout lily (Erythronium americanum), violets (Viola sororia, for instance), wild columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) and other dainty gnomes of the forest floor.
Culture Light: Mayapple thrives in the shade beneath the forest canopy. It tolerates partial to complete shade. Moisture: This species needs a moist to average soil, rich in organic matter and preferably carpeted with fallen leaves. However, it tolerates dry soil very well when it is dormant. Hardiness: USDA Zones 4 - 9. Propagation: Mayapples can be divided by severing individual plants that arise along the rhizome. Pieces of rhizome can often be used to start new plants. Seeds should be sown as soon as ripe.
A Mayapple colony is at its showiest in mid-spring.
Mayapple fruit matures in early summer and is consumed by wildlife. A lemony jelly can be prepared from the Mayapples.
Mayapple is best used in naturalistic plantings in shade to partial shade. If conditions are good, and the soil is rich in humus Mayapple will spread. Although you must get down on your knees to see the dainty little flowers, the foliage – a closed canopy of umbrellas – is a lovely sight. Allowed to naturalize with other spring ephemerals, Mayapple and its compatriots will delight in early spring before the big guys take over the landscape.
The fruits, relished by wildlife, are sometimes used to make jelly. Most parts of Mayapple were used by Native Americans medicinally for a variety of ailments including treatment for intestinal worms and stomach aches. Recent research has identified more than a dozen compounds with physiological activity that apparently have medicinal benefits. Several glycosides extracted from the roots and stems exhibit anti-tumor activity, and some of these are currently being used in the treatment of lung cancer and testicular cancer. Resin from the rhizomes has been used to treat warts. Homeopathic extracts of Mayapple are available commercially for the treatment of diarrhea.
There are about nine species of Podophyllum, confined to eastern North America and China and the Himalayas. The family, Berberidaceae, with some 570 species in 15 genera, is perhaps best known for the many species of barberry (genus Berberis) which are mostly attractive shrubs, popular in landscaping. Japanese barberry (B. thunbergii) is commonly used as a hedge or border shrub in the U.S. Nandina (Nandina domestica) and leatherleaf mahonia (Mahonia bealei) are also in the Berberdiceae, and one can rightly be surprised, since these woody shrubs bear so little resemblance to the little forest leprechaun, Mayapple. In fact, all are related, that is they all bear a common ancestor, and the taxonomists have figured this out by noting the similarity of structures that are conservative, that is, are slow to change evolutionarily. And, it turns out that the most conservative characters tend to be aspects of the flowers. So Mayapple, nandina, mahonia and barberry have similar flowers and share a common ancestor that is not shared with other species in other families.
The leaves and seeds of Mayapple are poisonous, even though the fully ripe fruit is edible. Podophyllum peltatum is protected as an Endangered Species in Florida, where it is known from just a single county in the Panhandle.