mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum)
SCIENTIFIC SYNONYMS: There are no scientific synonyms for
CONFIRMATION STATUS: Pending confirmation.
TAXONOMY: The currently accepted scientific name of mayapple
is Podophyllum peltatum L.
NATIVE STATUS: Native, United States and Canada.
GENERAL BOTANICAL CHARACTERITICS:
Habit: This native perennial plant is 11½' tall. Some plants are unbranch-
ed and produce a single leaf from a long stalk, while others produce a pair
of leaves on long petioles at the apex of this stalk. The stalks are light green, glabrous, and round.
Leaves: The leaves are up to 1' long and across; they are orbicular, palmate-
ly lobed, cleft, and dentate along the margins. There are 5-9 lobes per leaf
that are deeply divided. Like the stalks, the leaves are glabrous. On plants
with a single leaf, the petiole joins the leaf blade in the middle, creating an
umbrella-like appearance; on plants with a pair of leaves, the petioles join
the leaf blades toward the inner margin of each leaf.
Flowers: Plants with a pair of leaves produce a single nodding flower
where the petioles branch from each other. This flower is about 1½"
across and has 6-9 broad white petals. There are twice the number of
stamens as there are petals and a single superior ovary with a mealy
glob of styles at its apex. These reproductive organs are pale yellow-
orange. The sepals are deciduous and drop from the flower at an early
stage of its development. There is a pleasant floral scent.
Fruit/Seeds: Each flower is replaced by an ovoid berry that is fleshy and
seeds. It is about 2" long and turns yellow when ripe. This berry is
produced only when cross-pollination of the flower occurs.
Roots: The root system is fibrous and produces long rhizomes. Mayapple
often produces dense vegetative colonies that exclude other spring-flower-
REGENERATION PROCESS: Mayapple propogates by reseeding itself.
HABITAT TYPES: It is found primarily in mesic deciduous woodlands,
open woodlands, and partially shaded hillside seeps.
SITE CHARACTERISTICS: The preference is dappled light shade,
moist to slightly dry conditions, and a rich loamy soil with abundant
organic matter. This plant is easy to start from rhizomes and adapts well
to new situations. It has a tendency to spread vegetatively, but this is con-
trollable. The foliage dies down by the end of summer.
SEASONAL DEVELOPMENT: The blooming period occurs from mid-
to late spring and lasts about 3 weeks.
GENERAL DISTRIBUTION: Mayapple is primarily found in the east-
ern portion of the United States and Canada, into the Ohio Valley, and
extending as far west as Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas. It does not occur
naturally in the Plains region for the far west.
SKY MEADOWS DISTRIBUTION: To be determined.
IMPORTANCE AND USES: The flowers are pollinated by bumblebees
and other long-tongued bees. These insects suck nectar or collect pollen.
The foliage is avoided by mammalian herbivores because of its poisonous
qualities and bitter taste. The seeds and rhizomes are also poisonous. The
berries are edible if they are fully ripe; they are eaten by box turtles and
possibly by such mammals as opossums, raccoons, and skunks. The seeds
are distributed to new locations in the faeces of these animals.
The ripe fruit of mayapple is considered edible; all other parts of the plant
are toxic. Several lignans and their glycosides, present in the resin extract-
ed from rhizomes and roots, exhibit antitumor activity. Etoposide, a semi-
synthetic derivative of one of the lignans, is currently used in the treatment
of small-cell lung cancer and testicular cancer.
Native Americans used mayapple for a wide variety of medicinal purposes
and as an insecticide.
Mayapple is sometimes cultivated in woodland gardens, and some popula-
tions on the periphery of its geographical range may be escapes from cul-
People can eat the ripe berries in limited amounts, even though they may
be mildly toxic. The flavor is bland and resembles an overripe melon.
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