Mayapple is a perennial wildflower and ground covering that is much more common in native woodland areas than in cultivated gardens. Wildflower identification can be challenging, but mayapple is one wild plant that's quite easy to identify because nothing else looks even remotely like it. Moreover, as a perennial that spreads via rhizomes to form large colonies, you're most likely to encounter it in a mass formation that's hard to miss.
Growing 12 to 18 inches tall, each plant has a single stem with one or two large, heavily divided umbrella-like leaves. Plants with two leaves may produce a large white flower with six to eight petals in early spring, though the flower is usually hidden beneath the leaves. The flowers give way to a single greenish fruit that turns golden when ripe. Plant seeds or divide in early spring or fall; be patient with the seeds or divide to enjoy a fast spread of ground covering.
The flower is called mayapple because the bloom's appearance is reminiscent of apple blossoms. In the North, the flower appears in May; if it develops quickly enough, you'll also have fruit in May (although it won't ripen until sometime in summer).
|Botanical Name||Podophyllum peltatum|
|Common Names||Mayapple, American mandrake, wild mandrake, Indian apple, duck's foot|
|Plant Type||Herbaceous perennial|
|Mature Size||12-18 in. tall, 9-12 in. wide|
|Sun Exposure||Part shade to full shade|
|Soil Type||Humusy, well-drained soil|
|Soil pH||4.6-7.0 (acidic to neutral)|
|Hardiness Zones||3-8 (USDA)|
|Native Area||Eastern North America, Southern U.S. to Texas|
|Toxicity||Toxic to humans and animals|
Mayapple plants are indigenous to both moist and dry woodland areas of eastern North America (zones 3 to 8) and will thrive best if grown in similar conditions. Select an area with soil that drains well and where there is enough space for the plants to establish a small colony. Established colonies will tolerate some drought, but start new plants in moist loam enriched with compost.
When using this plant in your landscaping, do remember that it's a spring ephemeral that will go dormant at some point in the summer. This means that it will mainly be useful in the spring and early summer. It also means that it will leave a hole in its space that you may wish to fill with something else for the second half of the summer. Don't plant mayapple in a spot where you need continuous color.
As a shade-tolerant plant, mayapple is a natural for woodland gardens. If you live in eastern North America, consider mayapple for your native-plant garden. If you live elsewhere in its hardiness range and wish to grow it, it helps to know that this plant can naturalize easily. If the conditions are right, mayapple might naturalize a bit too freely and spread out of control to the point of being invasive.
At the southern end of mayapple's range, a location with full shade is best. In the North, however, they can take some sun, especially if they receive sufficient moisture.
Mayapple plants prefer a well-drained soil that tends toward the acidic side of the pH scale. It will do in either moist or dry soil, provided it is humusy and well-drained.
Mayapple prefers relatively moist soil, but like many woodland wildflowers, it has good tolerance for dry conditions, provided it is in a shady location. A good amount of organic material in the soil generally helps provide necessary moisture retention.
Temperature and Humidity
Mayapple does well in temperature and humidity levels throughout its hardiness range, though you should expect it to die back by mid-summer.
No feeding is necessary for mayapple, as this wildflower generally derives all the nutrients it needs from organic material in the soil. In poor soils, amending with compost will help the plants.
Is Mayapple Toxic?
On the one hand, the "apple" of this plant is edible. On the other hand, you may have heard that mayapple is a poisonous plant. Both points are true.
Be careful to eat only the fully ripened fruit. While the ripe, golden fruit is delicious, if you eat the fruit while it is still green, you might become ill with gastrointestinal symptoms. The fruit can be used in preserves and jellies (but eaten sparingly if you have a sensitive stomach).
Other parts beyond the fruit are quite toxic and should not be eaten. The rhizome, foliage, and roots contain podophyllotoxin, which when ingested in large amounts, can cause neurological disorders, liver problems, and bone marrow dysfunction. Poisoning in humans usually occurs when herbal-medicine enthusiasts mistake the plant for European mandrake (Mandragora officiinarum).
One of the other common names for Podophyllum peltatum is American mandrake, but this plant is not botanically related to the more famous European mandrake (Mandragora officinarum).
Mayapple vs. European Mandrake
As fascinating as mayapple is, European mandrake is an even more interesting study because it exerted a powerful impact on the European imagination for centuries and became entrenched in literature and art. European mandrake boasts of two unique traits. First, its roots are sometimes shaped like miniature human beings, and second, it's a hallucinogen. For both of these reasons, European mandrake figured prominently in magical lore and it was thought capable of improving fertility.
Medicinally, European mandrake was also valued as an anesthetic and a sleep aid. As with many medicinal plants, if you didn't get the dosage right, you could get sick from it. European mandrake is in the same family (nightshade) as bittersweet nightshade, a family infamous for its toxicity.
Mayapple can be propagated either by root division or by planting the seeds collected from the fruit. But seeds can take four to five years to grow to maturity, so root division is the more common and preferred method. In fall or early spring when the plant is dormant, simply dig up, divide, and replant where you would like expansive ground covering that even wildlife will avoid due to its tart leaves.
Common Pests & Diseases
Mayapple can develop a specific disease in the spring called mayapple rust. The top side of the leaves develop yellow or light green spots and the underside of the leaves may develop rust-colored spores or pustules. Leaves may pucker and drop but the plant tolerates it well. The disease is usually not fatal to the plant and does not require treatment.