Soon after moving into our new house in North Alabama, I became intrigued by a large expanse of an umbrella leafed plant that was growing in the woods near our home. The plant was the lovely Mayapple.
As I excitedly researched the plant- I realized that this wildflower was going to be a difficult subject on which to write an article- primarily because there was so much that could be written about the Mayapple. Where would I begin in writing about a plant that is also known as the Devil's Apple, American Mandrake, Indian Apple, Hog Apple, and Wild Lemon? How would I write about a plant this is listed as being edible in my Peterson Field Guide of Edible Wild Plants but that is also listed as being poisonous in my Peterson Field Guide of Venomous Animals and Poisonous Plants? How to write about a plant this is mentioned by Captain John Smith in 1612 and also noted and commented on by Champlain in 1619? And should I even mention the current medical uses of the plant in helping fight against cancers, tumors, warts, and skin disease?
The scientific name of the Mayapple is Podophyllum pelatum. Podophyllum is derived from the combination of the Greek words podos and phyllon meaning "foot shaped leaves". Pelatum seems to be derived from another Greek word meaning "shield". (source)
The Mayapple really should be known as the August-apple as the edible fruit isn't ripe until August. The small, egg shaped fruit was noticed and used as a food source by the early colonists to North America. Captain John Smith wrote the following in 1612 about the Mayapple- "...which the Inhabitants call Maracocks, which is a pleasant and wholesome fruit much like a lemond." (source). Champlain wrote the following in 1619- "One of their berries was new to us. It looked rather like a small lemon but tasted more like a fig. They grow on small plants not more than two and a half feet high. . . . In some parts of the country these berries are plentiful and they are extremely good to eat." (source)
But there is a reason that the Mayapple is listed as being edible AND as a toxin. The ripe fruit is edible. However, all other parts of this plant are very toxic- especially the roots. How toxic? Consider the following account of the Delaware Indian tribe from 1779- "...May apples, grow on stalks not over a foot high. The Indians enjoy eating the fruit, which has a sour but pleasant taste. The roots are a powerful poison which, who eats, dies in a few hours' time unless promptly given an emetic." There are quite a few accounts of the Indians using the root of the Mayapple as a means of committing suicide.
And even looking at the Mayapple root can possibly cause health problems. Well, maybe. Consider the following account written by a pharmacist in 1868. "If ever so small a particle should reach the eye- in eight to ten hours a violent inflammation ensues. The eyelids become swollen and red and the ball of the eye so suffused with blood as to cause loss of vision, for sometimes two days- I need not say the pain is most intense, and as I have been myself a subject I can speak very feelingly." (source)
The medical uses of Mayapples haven't been forgotten. Research is still being conducted by the large pharmaceutical companies for the medical uses of the plant. Medicines made from the Mayapple are currently being used in the treatment of genital warts as well as in the treatment of some types of skin cancers. (source) Purdue University has investigated the feasibility of commercially growing Mayapple plants because of its pharmaceutical potential. (source)
Who knew that so much history and possible health cures was in that patch of umbrella-leafed plants growing in the shade just a few hundred feet from my house? I wonder how many more undiscovered wonders are there waiting in the shade?