Mayapple: Native Shade Plant of Eastern North America

Poisonous but Striking Spring Ephemeral

My picture shows May apple. It's not really an apple.
A May apple leaf is shown in this picture. The plant puts out a large leaf for a relatively small perennial. David Beaulieu

What Is a Mayapple?

Known botanically as Podophyllum peltatum, this plant goes by various common names. "Mayapple" is sometimes broken up into two words (often separated by a hyphen). Among its other nicknames are "duck's foot" and "American mandrake" (see below).

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

How Would You Describe Mayapple Plants?

Wildflower identification can be a difficult undertaking, which is why challenging volumes such as Newcomb's Wildflower Guide have been written on the subject. But Mayapple is one wild plant that is quite easy to identify. Nothing else looks even remotely like it. Moreover, as a colonizing perennial that spreads via rhizomes to form monocultures, 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 (above), you'll be forever "in the know" about this remarkable plant. 

Mayapple plants grow to a height of 12-18 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 for me here in zone 5), before morphing to a richer, solid green in summer (as shown in my picture above).

The unique foliage is toothed on the margins, deeply indented; it is 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 that comes out in May.

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 is only moderately pretty, which is why I regard this perennial as primarily a foliage plant. But oh, what a foliage plant!

Where Do Mayapples Grow Best?

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

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. A case in point is the site of the Battle of Saratoga, which occurred during the American Revolution. This historic site, open to the public, is located in the little town of Stillwater in upstate New York.

Pick up an interpretive pamphlet at the visitor's center and set out along the Wilkinson trail in May, and you will encounter impressive stands of Mayapple in the site's sunny, damp meadow (as well as in the nearby woodland).

Edible Plant, Poisonous, or Both?

On the one hand, you have perhaps heard that the "apple" of this plant is edible. On the other hand, you've probably heard that Mayapple is among the poisonous plants. You may well wonder, then, "Which is it?"

Both are true. I am not an expert in wild foods, so I'm not in a position to recommend eating the fruit, but those who are, in fact, experts warn that you must be careful to eat only the fully ripened fruit -- if you eat the fruit while it is still green, you could become ill. What does the fruit taste like? "When fully ripe, the soft yellowish fruits are edible and have a sweet, mildly acidic taste," says Doug Ladd in  (p.172).

Other parts of the plant are toxic and should be avoided.

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 mentioned above).

The other half of the botanical name, Podophyllum 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. 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). The bloom's appearnace reminds people of an apple blossom.

European Mandrake in Magic and Medicine

Above, I mentioned that one of the common names for Podophyllum peltatum is American mandrake. The qualifier "American" distinguishes it from the more famous European mandrake (Mandragora officinarum), which also goes by such common names as "Satan's apple." The two plants are not related botanically. Indeed, it is 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 is 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 is 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. So let me stress that this phenomenon 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. "Fans of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books will recognize mandrake as the shrieking plants in Madame Sprout’s greenhouses," says Patti Wigington.

Medicinally, European mandrake was also valued as an anesthetic and as a soporific. 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 3-8) and wish to try growing it, take comfort in the fact that this plant is known to naturalize easily. In fact, if your conditions are highly amenable, Mayapple might naturalize a bit too freely and spread out of control. When using this plant in your landscaping, do remember that it is a spring ephemeral. 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.

For ardent gardeners willing to devote some time to appreciating their plants to the fullest, Mayapple holds a great deal of joy. It is at its most mesmerizing when the leaf (or leaves) first unfurls from the stalk. Mayapple stalks begin popping up vigorously in my shade garden around the third week in April. Initially, they resemble unopened umbrellas. Then the spokes start peeling off from the center in a spiraling motion. See my picture of Mayapple's unfurling leaves here.

If you're fortunate enough to have established a colony of Mayapple plants, you will be treated to a miniature forest of partially-opened umbrellas at some point in the spring. I happen to feel that this is prime time for admiring this whimsical perennial. Changes in the plant at this time are, however, rapid, so you have to pay attention, lest you miss out on the show. Mayapple saves its greatest rewards for the vigilant, for whom it is truly one of the most fun plants to grow in the landscape.