Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) of the Barberry (Berberidaceae) family is an herbaceous perennial that has one or two large leaves per stalk. The genus name is from Greek words for “foot” and “leaf”, in reference to the appearance of the leaves. The specific epithet, from Latin, is a reference to the vegetative leaf’s umbrella-like form, in which the petiole joins the leaf blade on its lower surface rather than the margin. In the U.S., mayapple, the only North American species of Podophyllum, occurs from Texas to Minnesota eastward to the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts. In Arkansas, mayapple occurs statewide. (A second species of Podophyllum occurs in east Asia.) Habitat consists of shady to partially sunny, mixed deciduous forest and forest edges with dry to mesic soils, along with moist open areas. Plants are also called American mandrake based on the superficial similarity to the unrelated European mandrake, Mandragora officianarum.
Mayapple develops an extensive shallow layer of reddish brown, rope-like rhizomes, to ¼ inch in diameter, that elongate annually by adding 2- to 8-inch-long straight segments. The ends of the segments have numerous down-turning fleshy white roots. Rhizomes do not have any noticeable growth nodes. With several new rhizomes branching from the ends of previous years’ segments, open to dense colonies may form with hundreds of leaves.
In late winter, vegetative growth develops from the terminal buds on previous years’ rhizome segments. The first growth to appear is a white “cone” formed by several imbricated protective bracts. As one to two large leaves develop, the cone spreads open. At first, leaf blades are down-drooped around hidden stalks so that the flat white centers of the leaves are the first leaf-portion to appear out of the cones. In the case of two-leaf stalks, two white centers appear, separated by an ovoid flower bud. Stalk growth quickly frees the growing furled leaf blades from their protective cone and they open umbrella-like.
Stalks, 1½ to 1¾ feet tall and ¼ inch in diameter, are erect, terete and glabrous. Stalks that support two leaves are forked at about two-thirds their height so that stem-length above the fork is 3 to 6 inches. Stalks bearing one or two leaves are of similar height and have the same light green to reddish coloration. Stalks are totally smooth. At the end of the growing season, stalks quickly disintegrate, leaving a round scar on the persistent rhizome.
Leaves, to 14 inches across, have an orbicular outline with up to nine shallowly to deeply incised lobes, depending on leaf size. Lobes are obovate in outline and separated by deep clefts. Leaves are a medium green above, often mottled, and a lighter green below. The upper leaf surface is glabrous, the lower surface and margins densely short-pubescent. Venation is strongly recessed above–creating a smoothly wrinkled surface–and strongly expressed below, with main veins dividing distally and terminating at the apiculate tips of the lobes.
Leaf shape of one-leaf stalks, with center of leaf blade attaching to stalk, is peltate. Leaves of two-leaf stalks have fewer lobes, the “missing” lobes directly above the fork in the stalk, so that leaf shape becomes off-set palmate (point of stalk attachment not fully centered) to palmate (point of attachment at leaf margin). One leaf of two-leaf stalks tends to be smaller than the other.
The mayapple inflorescence comprises a single flower positioned in the fork of two-leaf stalks. When stalks first emerge, flower buds are positioned slightly above and between the emerging leaf pair. With stalk and leaf growth, buds become hidden well below the large leaves. Buds, on slender sturdy pedicels to 1½ inches long, have three light greenish bowl-shaped sepals that drop off as the corolla swells. With anthesis, the large (to 3 inches wide) white flowers face downward. (Several rare forms of mayapple are known to occur.*)
Flowers have five to nine petals, 12 to 15 stamens, and a single superior ovary. The white, waxy, obovate petals are 1½ inches long and wide. Stamens have ¼-inch-long pale yellow filaments and ¼-inch-long light yellow anthers that release pollen as they dehisce (split) along their lateral margins. The light green ovary is tipped by a prominent, pale yellow, crinkled stigma atop a short, stout style. Flowers are fragrant. Ovules are massed on a single broad placenta along one side of a central cavity.
A fertilized flower produces a berry that ripens in mid-summer. Mature fruit, about 1½ inches long, becomes pale yellow as leaves and stalk wilt and dry. Fruits drop to the ground where they become accessible to various small mammals as well as box turtles (Terrapene carolina), resulting in seed dispersal. The smooth seeds resemble apple seeds.
Mayapple’s conspicuous foliage and colonizing tendencies may be welcome in a woodland garden or natural area where it would add a dramatic flair. The easily viewed parts of flowers and fruit can make it an educational tool. Gardeners can easily establish new colonies by transplanting rhizome segments as foliage declines. All above-ground evidence of plants disappears from summer until spring. Ripe fruit, with seed removed, is considered to be edible while all other portions of the plant (including unripe fruit) are known to be toxic. Mayapple contains podophyllotoxin, which is used in developing prescription drugs and for cancer research. Foliage is not eaten by deer or rabbits.
* Podophyllum peltatum forma deamii has pink-tinged flowers and maroon fruit. Podophyllum peltatum forma polycarpum produces a cluster of fruit. Podophyllum peltatum forma biltmoreanum produces orange fruit.
Article and photographs by ANPS member Sid Vogelpohl