Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum)

Mayapple, American Mandrake, Wild Mandrake, Ground Lemon

Mayapple is a perennial wildflower and ground covering that is much more common in native woodland areas than in cultivated gardens. Wildflower identification can be challenging, but mayapple is one wild plant that’s quite easy to identify because nothing else looks even remotely like it. Moreover, as a perennial that spreads via rhizomes to form large colonies, you’re most likely to encounter it in a mass formation that’s hard to miss. 

I. Appearance and Characteristics 

Podophyllum peltatum is an herbaceous perennial plant in the family Berberidaceae. Its common names are mayapple, American mandrake, wild mandrake, and ground lemon. It is widespread across most of the eastern United States and southeastern Canada.

This plant does not have any relationship with the real apple and it does not have any similar appearance with it as well. Its golden fruit is barely similar to some of the apple species. It often blossoms in early May and will bear fruits during the summer. So, it is called Mayapple.

Mayapples are woodland plants, typically growing in colonies derived from a single root. The stems grow to 30–40 cm (12 in to 16 in) tall, with palmately lobed umbrella-like leaves up to 20–40  cm (8 in to 16 in) diameter with 3–9 shallowly to deeply cut lobes. The plants produce several stems from a creeping underground rhizome; some stems bear a single leaf and do not produce any flower or fruit, while flowering stems produce a pair or more leaves with 1–8 flowers in the axil between the apical leaves. The flowers are white, yellow or red, 2–6 cm (1″ to 2″) diameter with 6–9 petals.

Although the flowers are quite showy, they are short-lived and usually hidden by the leaves. The flowers are fragrant, variously described as pleasant to putrid and are visited by bumblebees and other long-tongued bees.

Pollinated flowers are followed in early summer by fleshy, ovoid to lemon-shaped fruits (a berry) containing several tan seeds. These green “apples” ripen to a golden color, sometimes tinged with pink or purple, later in the summer. The 1½-2 inch long fruits (but not the seeds) are edible (but bland) when ripe and can be used in jellies or preserves. They may also be eaten by box turtles and other wildlife that disperse the seeds. Plants will self-seed under ideal growing conditions.

All the parts of the plant are poisonous, including the green fruit, but once the fruit has turned yellow, it can be safely eaten . The ripe fruit does not produce toxicity.

The substance they contain (podophyllotoxin or podophyllin) is used as a purgative and as a cytostatic. Posalfilin is a drug containing podophyllin and salicylic acid that is used to treat the plantar wart. Podophyllotoxin is highly toxic if consumed.

They are also grown as ornamental plants for their attractive foliage and flowers, and they are a larval host for the golden borer moth and the may apple borer.

Though the common name is mayapple, in some areas it is the flower that appears in early May, not the “apple”. The fruit or “apple” is usually produced early in summer and ripens later in summer.

Many species of plants have mycorrhizae to assist with nutrient uptake in infertile conditions. Mayapple plants are considered obligately dependent upon such mycorrhizae, although it may also be facultatively dependent upon rhizome age and soil nutrient levels. Plants are commonly found infected by the rust Allods podophyllin, appearing as honeycomb-patterned orange colonies under the leaves, and yellowish lesions on the upper surface.

The unripe green fruit is toxic. The ripened yellow fruit is edible in small amounts, and sometimes made into jelly, though when consumed in large amounts the fruit is poisonous. The rhizome, foliage, and roots are also poisonous. Mayapple contains podophyllotoxin, which is highly toxic if consumed, but can be used as a topical medicine.

Mayapple plants are indigenous to both moist and dry woodland areas of eastern North America (zones 3 to 8) and will thrive best if grown in similar conditions. Select an area with soil that drains well and where there is enough space for the plants to establish a small colony. Established colonies will tolerate some drought, but start new plants in moist loam enriched with compost.

II. How to Grow and Care

When using this plant in your landscaping, do remember that it’s a spring ephemeral that will go dormant at some point in the summer. This means that it will mainly be useful in the spring and early summer. It also means that it will leave a hole in its space that you may wish to fill with something else for the second half of the summer. Don’t plant mayapple in a spot where you need continuous color. 

Sunlight

At the southern end of mayapple’s range, a location with full shade is best. In the North, however, they can take some sun, especially if they receive sufficient moisture.

Temperature and Humidity

Mayapple does well in temperature and humidity levels throughout its hardiness range, though you should expect it to die back by midsummer.

Watering

Mayapple prefers relatively moist soil, but like many woodland wildflowers, it has good tolerance for dry conditions, provided it is in a shady location. A good amount of organic material in the soil generally helps provide necessary moisture retention.

Soil

Mayapple plants prefer a well-drained soil that tends toward the acidic side of the pH scale. It will do well in either moist or dry soil, provided it is humusy and well-drained.

Fertilizing

No feeding is necessary for mayapple, as this wildflower generally derives all the nutrients it needs from organic material in the soil. In poor soils, amending with compost will help the plants.

Pruning

Pruning the Mayapple is as easy as waiting until you notice dead or damaged leaves on your plant. When you recognize these leaves, equip yourself with a pair of sharp and sterile hand pruning shears. Hand pruning shears will work best as larger tools like loppers will not be well suited to the precise cuts you need to make. 

Once you have a proper set of pruning tools, locate an unwanted leaf, then follow its stem all the way to the bottom of the petiole. Removing dead stems will increase the light and ventilation of the plant and help it to grow. Cut the stem just above where it exits the soil to remove it entirely. If you wish to stop this plant from flowering, you can use the same pruning shears to remove any buds before they open. 

Finally, you may prefer to just trim off dead or damaged portions of the plant, including deadheading spent flowers, to keep it looking its best. This can be done at any time of year. Diseased or damaged stems should be cut right at the soil line and removed completely. Blooms should be cut off just below the flower head. Cutting back should be done late in the winter to early spring. Ideally, you should wait until you see new basal growth before you cut off the dead and dried winter parts to about 6 inches from the ground.

Propagation

Division

Mayapple can be propagated either by root division or by planting the seeds collected from the fruit. But seeds can take four to five years to grow to maturity, so root division is the more common and preferred method. Mayapple can be propagated through several methods. Here’s how:

  • In fall or early spring when the plant is dormant dig up the roots.
  • Carefully using a spade or garden shears, divide the root systems.
  • Replant where you would like expansive ground covering that even wildlife will avoid due to its tart leaves.

Seed

Mayapple can be grown from seed. Soak and soften the seeds in water for 24 hours prior to planting. If you are planting in late fall, plant seeds right below the surface of the soil. Once planted, ensure the soil stays moist until germination. Note the plant will develop slowly once seedlings are established.

Transplanting

Our dear mayapple loves autumnal transplanting, more specifically between S1-S3. This is because the plant appreciates cooler weather and ample time to establish roots before spring. Ideally, a shaded or partially shaded location suits mayapple best. In transplanting, ensure the root-ball is fully covered to promote robust growth.

Pests and Diseases

Mayapple can develop a specific disease in the spring called mayapple rust. The top side of the leaves develop yellow or light green spots and the underside of the leaves may develop rust-colored spores or pustules. Leaves may pucker and drop but the plant tolerates it well. The disease is usually not fatal to the plant and does not require treatment.

How to Get to Bloom

Mayapple blooms in the spring with white flowers that are mostly hidden beneath the leaves. Only mayapple plants with two leaves will produce the large, white flower. To encourage blooming, ensure your plant has moist, acidic soil. Avoid mowing or competition from other plants. Do not deadhead as the flowers give way to fruit.

III. Uses and Benefits 

  • Ornamental uses

Mayapple is a wildflower often grown in gardens due to the attractive nature of its blooms and foliage. It is most commonly planted in native and woodland gardens. It is normally never planted along borders because this species goes dormant during the summer season. That dormancy creates a gap in the summer foliage. Mayapple foliage is considered interesting and conspicuous during its blooming season.

  • Medicinal uses

Mayapple has been used by American Indians as an emetic, cathartic, and anthelmintic agent. The rhizome of the mayapple has been used for a variety of medicinal purposes, originally by indigenous inhabitants and later by other settlers.

Mayapple can be also used topically as an escharotic in removing warts, and two of its derivatives, etoposide and teniposide, have shown promise in treating some cancers. Etoposide is among the World Health Organization’s list of essential medicines and it is derived from podophyllotoxin.

Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) Details

Common name Mayapple, American Mandrake, Wild Mandrake, Ground Lemon
Botanical name Podophyllum peltatum
Plant type Edible
Hardiness zone 3a, 3b, 4a, 4b, 5a, 5b, 6a, 6b, 7a, 7b, 8a, 8b
Harvest time Spring
Height 1 ft. 0 in. - 1 ft. 6 in.
Width 1 ft. 0 in. - 1 ft. 6 in.
Sunlight Deep shade (Less than 2 hours to no direct sunlight)
Soil condition High Organic Matter
Flower color White
Leaf color Green