Each spring, the understory of our Beverly Shores woodlands is covered with innumerable fresh green double parasols of mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum). These familiar wildflowers, with their distinctive, umbrella-like leaves, grow in tight little colonies that stand out in many woodland remnants both in town and in its neighboring parklands. Each hides a single, beautiful, fragrant waxy white flower under its pair of sheltering umbrellas. (Plants with just a single umbrella are immature and do no hide a flower underneath.) Mayapples measure about one to one and half feet in height. Growing and flowering mostly before our trees leaf out, mayapple is a “spring ephemeral” They disappear underground before summer is finished.
Though nearly all of the plant is poisonous, a small fruit (the “apple” referred to in the name) of the mayapple is edible when ripe. The fruit ripens and turns yellow in July or August at about the same time the mayapple leaves wither away. The flavor is unique, tasting like a blend of tropical fruits and melons. If you decide to eat one, remember that the seeds are poisonous, even in the ripe fruit. You will also need to carefully monitor a population in order to find the fruit. Once the leaves disappear, the plant is hard to find and you have competition from hungry wild animals.
Sometimes poisonous things have medicinal properties. Chemicals derived from mayapple are used to treat warts and as chemotherapy agents in cancer treatment.
Mayapple adapts well to shade and woodland gardens, though it can be tough to corral; it spreads quickly by underground rhizomes. It does however send up a very interesting sprout, like an unopened green umbrella, in early spring. Its lobed and umbrella-like leaves and waxy white flowers are an excellent addition to any garden. When adding to your garden, keep in mind that it will leave an empty space in late summer when it fades away.
Another benefit of mayapples is that deer seldom browse on them. Perhaps it is the poisonous nature of the plant. Even during the years when Beverly Shore’s deer population was at its highest, one could still see occasional surviving colonies of mayapple.
Check throughout our web site at www.bserg.org, for information on native and non-native, invasive plants. If you have questions about mayapple or other native or non-native plants, don’t hesitate to contact Terry Bonace (email@example.com), Candice Smith (firstname.lastname@example.org), or Bill Schaudt (email@example.com) for assistance.