Take a walk in many wooded areas now and you might see low growing herbs with large umbrella-like leaves. They look a little like Lenten roses. Plants are found throughout the eastern half of North America from Canada to Florida.
One of my students brought me a sample recently for identification, so I thought I’d write about it. Deer, rabbits, birds and other wildlife never eat these leaves, so plants can form a solid carpet on the forest floor. If you look closely you’ll notice some have white flowers, which are mostly hidden by dense foliage.
Plants have either one or two leaves. If comprised of two leaves, these herbs will have a flower. Single leaved plants will not.
This plant is the mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum), also known as devil’s apple, hog apple, Indian apple, umbrella plant, wild lemon, and American mandrake. It is in the barberry family.
There is good reason why animals avoid mayapple leaves and don’t dig out roots. In almost all stages this non-woody plant is poisonous, in fact deadly poisonous.
Underground parts of the plant are the most toxic, but they have anticancer properties and are used in chemotherapy. The compound in question is podophyllotoxin, an alkaloid that is highly poisonous in even moderate quantity. Some Native American tribes even fashioned preparations rich in this chemical as a suicide drug. In my native Maine,
Penobscot Indians prepared mayapple roots and rhizomes in poultice form to control skin warts.
Podophyllotoxin is used to synthesize etoposide, teniposide and etopophos. These compounds have been used for the treatment of lung and testicular cancers as well as certain leukemias. These chemicals work, because they stop cell division and also restrain tumor production. Podophyllotoxin is also being modified and tested for rheumatoid arthritis treatment in Europe. Several podophyllotoxin preparations also can be purchased to treat genital warts.
Another medicinal use for this plant is as a laxative. If you are my age or older you might recall ‘Carter’s little liver pills.’ Mayapple comprised the active ingredient of these powerful laxatives. It’s probably good that the pills were little. Too much could have been a major problem.
The only part of the mayapple that is edible is the fruit, and that is only when it is fully ripe. Contrary to its name, fruits ripen in July or August, not May. When they ripen, deer will aggressively consume them. A patch of ripe mayapples is also a good place to find box turtles.
Egg-shaped fruits with multiple seeds are ripe when soft and emit a lemon-like aroma. Flavor of these berries is like a cross between a lemon and a fig. Fully ripe fruits can be eaten fresh, fashioned into preserves or used in baking. Discard seeds if possible, as they contain toxic compounds. This likely wouldn’t be a problem if you don’t chew any seeds.
Some people might be confused how a plant can be so toxic and yet other parts are edible. Don’t be. Mayapple is just one of countless plants like this.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.