Description & Overview
Mayapple is a native woodland herbaceous perennial typically found in large colonies in our deciduous forests, shady fields, and riverbanks. Because of the way Mayapple spreads, the entire colony may be connected through one root system. Come early spring, dark green shoots emerge from the soil and will soon unfold, revealing their umbrella-like leaves. Wildflower identification can be challenging, but Mayapple is one plant that’s relatively easy to identify because it looks unique.
Mayapple is a ground-covering perennial much more common in native woodland sites than in cultivated gardens. It spreads to form colonies through its rhizomes, often forming dense mats in damp, open woods. Rhizomes are horizontally growing underground stems that form adventitious roots and lateral shoots. In spring, upright stems emerge from the soil with their leaves remaining furled. Smooth, rounded pale green leaves unfold when the stem nears its full height revealing its umbrella-like shape. Mayapple makes its appearance in early spring but then senesces to dormancy by mid-summer.
This wildflower has ornamental traits, such as its attractive foliage and flowers. If planting in a landscape, it is recommended to plant it in an area where it can be left to spread. They are an excellent choice for naturalizing in a woodland or native plant garden.
It should be noted that this plant is tolerant of Juglone so it will grow under or near a black walnut.
The fragrant flowers of Mayapple are pollinated by bees such as bumblebees, sweat bees, and long-horned bees. Thankfully, rabbits and deer don’t eat the foliage due to its poisonous qualities and bitter taste. Although, the larva stage of the sawfly (Aglaostigma quattuordecimpunctatum), does feed on the foliage. The adult stage of thrips (Ctenothrips bridwelli) have also been found eating the foliage. These two insects only cause minor damage to the plant and rarely warrant special control.
Pollinated flowers are followed by fruit in early summer. The fruits are green, fleshy, ovoid to lemon-shaped, and ripen to a nice golden color. The fruits are enjoyed by wildlife such as turtles, squirrels, raccoons, and chipmunks.
Mayapple needs partial shade to full shade to thrive. Select an area with well-draining soil that is rich in organic material. If planting in a yard or landscape, select a site with enough space for plants to establish a small colony. Established colonies will tolerate drought, but new plantings should be kept moist. The leaves of trees make the perfect mulch which will help protect the plant from drying out.
Remember that Mayapple is a spring ephemeral that goes dormant by mid-summer. This means there will be a hole in the planting space that you may wish to fill with something else for the second half of the summer. Don’t plant Mayapple in a location where you need continuous color.
Mayapple rust is a common, disfiguring fungal disease that requires no alternative host and completes its lifecycle on Mayapple. When infected, the top side of the leaves will develop yellow or light green spots. The underside of the leaves may develop rust-colored spores or pustules. Infected plants usually have their leaves pucker and may eventually drop – although established Mayapple tends to tolerate it.
This disease is usually not fatal and does not require special treatment.
Mayapple gets its name from the flowers reminiscent of apple blossoms and typically appear during May. The flowers also give way to a single, greenish fruit with an immature apple-like appearance, although, when ripe, the fruit turns a lovely golden yellow and is sometimes tinged with pink or purple come late summer.
The fruit is edible, although it is rather bland. It can be used in jellies or preserves.
Note that all OTHER parts of Mayapple contain podophyllotoxin, which is highly toxic if consumed. Only the fruit is non-toxic.
The genus name Podophyllum is derived from the Greek word ‘podos’ for “foot” and ‘phyllon’ for “leaf”. The specific epithet, peltatum comes from the Latin word meaning “shield-shaped” for its rounded leaves which are centrally attached to the petiole.