When we lived west of Toronto, it was commonplace to see large colonies of mayapples (Podophyllum peltatum) along shady country roads. Although mayapples produce seeds, they mainly spread by rhizomes, and large colonies can all be the clones of a single parent plant. Since moving to eastern Ontario, I haven’t come across any mayapple colonies. I decided to add my own mayapples to my shade garden and purchased a couple of nursery plants a few years ago.
As this charming native first emerges from the ground in the spring, the leaf is wrapped around the stem and gradually unfurls like a green umbrella. Juvenile plants have just one leaf, while mature plants have two large leaves. The scientific name has Greek roots, with podos meaning foot and phyllon meaning leaf (because of its resemblance to the foot of a web-footed aquatic bird). Linnaeus added peltatum, from the Latin peltatus for ‘shield-shaped’.
When mature plants flower, a single bloom is formed at the Y where the two leaves join. I missed capturing a picture of the flower, but here is the fruit that has now formed. It’s easy to miss the flowers because the large leaves hide them from sight. It will take a few months for the fruit to ripen. All parts of the plant are poisonous, including the unripe fruit, but when ripe, the fruit is reportedly edible. (I don’t intend to try it.) Captain John Smith reportedly compared the fruit to a lemon, while Samuel de Champlain compared it to a fig.
Mayapples are an important source of podophyllotoxin, from which two semisynthetic drugs used in fighting cancer are derived. One of these, etoposide, was used by Lance Armstrong in his fight to beat testicular cancer.
With Podophyllum peltatum doing well, I added a second species of mayapple last year. Photographed above is Podophyllum hexandrum, a Himalayan native. It made it through its first winter and is doing well.
This spring I added Podophyllum pleianthum, another Asian species. It will take about 7 years to mature. May you live long and prosper, little plant!