Mayapple Plant Profile

Mayapple plants

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Mayapple is a perennial wildflower 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. 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. Once you see a photo of its leaves, you'll never forget how to identify it. 

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 6 to 8 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, and which can be used in preserves and jellies.

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, 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. Don't plant Mayapple in a spot where you need continuous color.

Name Origins

The genus name, 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 species portion of the botanical name, 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 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 to 18 inches tall, 9- to 12-inch spread
Sun Exposure Part shade to full shade
Soil Type  Humusy, well-drained soil
Soil pH 4.6 to 7 (acidic to neutral)
Bloom Time April
Flower Color White
Hardiness Zones 3 to 8 (USDA)
Native Area Eastern North America, southern U.S. to Texas

How to Grow Mayapple Plants

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. 

Light

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. 

Soil

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.

Water

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.

Fertilizer

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.

Propagating Mayapple

Mayapple can be propagated either by root division or by planting the seeds collected from the fruit. But seeds can take 4 to 5 years to grow to maturity, so root division is the more common method. In fall or early spring when the plant is dormant, dig up and divide the rhizomes, and replant the pieces. 

Toxicity of Mayapple

On the one hand, the "apple" of this plant is edible. On the other hand, you may have heard that mayapple is a poisonous plants. Both points are true.

Be careful to eat only the fully ripened fruit. While the ripe, golden fruit is delicious, but if you eat the fruit while it is still green, you might become ill with gastrointestinal symptoms.

Other parts beyond the fruit are quite toxic and should not be eaten. The rhizome, foliage, and roots contains 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).

Compared with European Mandrake

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).

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. The Doctrine of Signatures 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 was thought capable of improving our 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.