Mayapple: Unusual North-American Native for the Shade Garden

Striking Spring Ephemeral That Has Edible, Poisonous Parts

Mayapple plant with its sharply indented leaf.
David Beaulieu

Mayapple is one of the most fun plants to grow in the landscape. It bears big, beautiful leaves and produces an edible fruit (although it's otherwise poisonous). Learn all about this unusual plant, from how to grow it to how to use it.

What Is a Mayapple?

Known botanically as Podophyllum peltatum, this plant goes by various common names. "Mayapple" is used most often, but among its other nicknames are "duck's foot" and "American mandrake."

Podophyllum peltatum is an herbaceous perennial and a spring ephemeral. Surprisingly, it belongs to the same family (Berberidaceae) as Japanese barberry and so-called "heavenly bamboo."

How Would You Describe Mayapple Plants?

Wildflower identification can be challenging, but Mayapple is one wild plant that's quite easy to identify. 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. So once you see a photo of its leaf, you'll never forget how to identify it. 

Mayapple plants grow to a height of 12 to 18 inches. The leaves are massive relative to the overall size of the plant, attaining a width of up to 1 foot. Leaf color starts out olive-green with hints of copper when the plants first emerge in spring (April in zone 5), before morphing to a richer, solid green in early summer. The unique foliage is deeply indented on the margins. It's reminiscent of an umbrella when it first unfurls in spring. The student of Mayapple plants will detect some variation in the leaves from plant to plant.

The namesake "apple" is a fruit that succeeds the short-lived white flower. Not all plants in a colony will bloom in a given year, but the ones that do bloom bear two leaves; sterile plants produce just a single leaf. The flower (one per plant) occurs at the fork between the two leaf stems. While it's a reasonably attractive bloom, it's not very showy, due to its nodding habit: You have to get down on all fours, bend your head down, and twist your neck up to behold the charms of the flower. That's a lot of work to go through for a bloom that's only moderately pretty, which is why it should be regarded as primarily a foliage plant

Where Do Mayapples Grow Best?

Mayapple plants are indigenous to eastern North America and are best suited to growing zones 3 to 8. Select soil that drains well for them. Established colonies will tolerate some drought, but start new plants in moist loam enriched with compost

At the southern end of their range, a location with full shade is best. But, in the North, they can take some sun, especially if they receive sufficient moisture. 

Edible Plant, Poisonous, or Both?

On the one hand, the "apple" of this plant is edible. On the other hand, you've probably heard that Mayapple is among the poisonous plants. Both points are true.

Be careful to eat only the fully ripened fruit. If you eat the fruit while it is still green, you could become ill. "When fully ripe, the soft yellowish fruits are edible and have a sweet, mildly acidic taste," says Doug Ladd in North Woods Wildflowers (p.172). Some people use the fruits to make jelly. Other parts of this native plant are toxic and should not be eaten.

Origin of the Botanical, Common Names

Podophyllum is composed of the Greek prefix podo (foot) and the Greek word for "leaf," which is phyllon. The plant namers apparently thought the leaf looked something like a duck's foot (thus one of the alternate common names).

The other half of the botanical namePodophyllum peltatum could also allude to the leaf shape; it means "resembling a shield." Perhaps a better explanation for peltatum is that the plant's leaves and leaf stems exhibit what botanists term a "peltate" formation. This means that the stem below a leaf comes up to join it around the center of the leaf's underside (as opposed to around the margin of the leaf). This peltate formation helps give Mayapple its umbrella-like appearance.

The derivation of the common name, "Mayapple," is much more straightforward. The bloom's appearance reminds people of an apple blossom. 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). 

European Mandrake in Magic and Medicine

One of the other common names for Podophyllum peltatum is American mandrake, where the qualifier "American" distinguishes it from the more famous European mandrake (Mandragora officinarum). The two plants aren't related botanically. In fact, it's hard to account for the association, except that both plants:

  • Are poisonous
  • Have been used medicinally
  • Bear "apple" in one of their common names 
  • Are unusual enough to have captured our collective fancy

As fascinating a plant 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. By comparison, Mayapple plants have made little impression on culture.

Nor should this surprise us, since European mandrake boasts of two traits which it does not share with its American namesake:

  • Its roots are sometimes shaped like miniature human beings.
  • It's a hallucinogen.

For both of these reasons, European mandrake figured prominently in magic. Due to the long-held belief in the Doctrine of Signatures, the root shape was bound to excite interest. This doctrine asserted that the shape of a plant part suggested its potential use in magic and medicine. Given such beliefs, it's easy to see why a plant that bore a "little human" beneath its foliage would be thought capable of improving our fertility.

The modern mind tends to underestimate the extent to which the medieval mind truly believed in such things. The belief went beyond mere symbolism: To medieval people, that really was a little human under there, a being that would emit a scream if dug up. 

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.

Uses for Mayapple Plants in Landscaping

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 a region comparable to USDA planting zones 3 to 8) and wish to grow it, take comfort in the fact that this plant is known to naturalize easily. In fact, if the conditions are right, Mayapple might naturalize a bit too freely and spread out of control.

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. So don't plant Mayapple in a spot where you need continuous color.

For ardent gardeners willing to devote some time to appreciate their plants to the fullest, Mayapple holds a great deal of joy. It's at its most mesmerizing when the leaf (or leaves) first unfurls from the stalk. When Mayapple stalks first begin popping up in spring, they resemble unopened umbrellas. Then the spokes start peeling off from the center in a spiraling motion. 

If you're fortunate enough to have established a colony of Mayapple plants, you'll be treated to a miniature forest of partially-opened umbrellas at some point in the spring. This is prime time for admiring the whimsical perennial. Changes in the plant at this time are, however, rapid, so you have to pay attention. Otherwise, you miss out on the show. Mayapple saves its greatest rewards for the vigilant.