Other Names may apple, may-apple, American mandrake, umbrella plant, Devil’s apple, hog apple, Indian apple, wild lemon, mayflower
Mayapple is an American native member of the plant family Berberidaceae common to woodland clearings in the Northern and Eastern United States and Southern Canada. It produces two deeply lobed leaves from a smooth, round basal stem and a single waxy white flower with bright yellow stamen that appears in the split between the two leaves. The flower has three petals and three petal-like sepals (so it looks like it has 6 petals) and appears in the early spring, usually in May and ripens to produce the May “Apple” as the foliage dies around it. Some report the Mayapple to be edible and others report is mildly poisonous, though it does serve as food for wildlife. The rest of the plant is most certainly poisonous. The fruit is green to yellow and contains many seeds.
In its first year, the plant only produces one leaf, that pops up from the ground like an umbrella. These first-year plants will not bloom. Mayapple often occurs in colonies, which elegantly shade the forest floor.
History and Folklore:
According to lore, Native Americans used this plant for its healing attributes but also to commit suicide.
The botanical name Podophyllum peltatum comes from the greek podo and phyllon meaning “foot-shaped leaves” and Peltatum meaning “shield”.
Mayapple spreads from underground rhizomes to quickly form a colony that shades out smaller plants. It makes an excellent ground cover for unused areas and grows well in dappled shade. It likes light, loamy soil, shade, but not deep shade and plenty of space to spread out. You can gather seeds or rhizomes to plant or you might find a transplant in a native plant nursery. (I got mine from the local plant conservancy- they gather wild plants from construction sites and then sell them to the public.)
It’s good to keep them moist, not wet, and free of weeds until established. Once they are established, they will spread like crazy and crowd out weaker plants. Remember that it will take a few years before they start producing fruits and that each plant will only produce one per year. The fruit occurs in May as the name would suggest.
Harvesting & Storage
The root (which is extremely dangerous to handle or ingest) should be dried away from sunlight. The effective constituents are not water soluble and must be dissolved in alcohol.
The fruit may be made into jelly or sliced thin and dried or dried whole for use in spells. The fruit is ripe when it is yellow and soft in mid- to late summer.
Make sure to wear gloves while handling the foliage or roots of this plant and wash your hands thoroughly before touching your face or eyes.
The powdered root is used in powerful protective magic. Mayapple is extremely irritating to the eyes and Mayapple root is used in spells to keep things (like diaries, books of shadows, etc.) hidden from prying eyes. The powder can be sprinkled around the storage area or on the object itself, or around the perimeter of an area where you do not wish to be disturbed. (Remember that Mayapple is a topical poison while doing this. Take care not to let the powder sit on your skin or come in contact with your eyes.)
The whole root can be tucked under the mattress to ensure the fertility and virility of the couple who sleep upon it.
Kept in a high place in the home, Mayapple root is said to draw prosperity to the home and protect it from bad luck.
Although the plants are quite different, this herb is commonly used as a substitution in spells calling for Mandrake (Atropa mandragora). The similar growth habit, seasonally appearing, blooming and then disappearing, may account for this, as there is little similarity between the plants otherwise, chemically or in appearance.
The poisonous rhizome can be boiled and used to kill insects on crop plants, especially potatoes. Make sure that the resulting potion is only sprinkled on the inedible (to humans) parts of the plants, such as tomato leaves and the aerial parts of potato plants.
Mayapple is listed as “unsafe” by the FDA and most experts agree that its action is too strong for self-medication even by experienced herbalists. Every part, excepting the ripe fruit, is deadly poison and can kill an adult human within 24 hours.
It was used by Native American tribes, who dried and powdered the root, as a laxative and to remove worms and as a topical treatment for warts and skin cancer.
Modern medicine has found compounds in the rhizome that are useful against cancer and it is used in the treatment of genital warts and skin cancers in Asia. It is also under study for use against dropsy, dyspepsia, biliousness, and various liver conditions.
Symptoms of mayapple poisoning are salivation, vomiting, diarrhea, excitement, fever, headache, coma, and death.
Only the ripe fruit or “apple” of the mayapple is edible. The fruit is ripe when it is yellow and slightly soft. Despite its name, the flavor is more like lemon than an apple. Mayapples may be eaten raw, but they are best cooked or made into jelly. They may also be juiced and mixed with sugar and water to make a beverage similar to lemonade(remove all seeds before juicing). These fruits should be eaten only in moderation and only when perfectly ripe. It has been known to cause technicolor diarrhea.
If you’re using an old European spell that calls for Mandrake, many will say that you can use this plant instead. But remember, both plants are very poisonous and substitutions of dangerous plants should never be made with other dangerous plants when you are making things that are to be administered topically or ingested. The ripe fruit is the only “safe” part of this plant.