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Mayapple: Native plant sometimes mistaken for ancient mandrake

The mayapple plant is sometimes referred to as “American mandrake”. While it is true that mayapples appear similar to mandrake plants found in the Mediterranean region and mentioned in the Book of Genesis in the Bible, Shakespeare’s plays, and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, the two plants are entirely different species and have different properties, both real and imagined.

Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) flowers, native to eastern North America, bloom in late spring and have five to nine white petals.
Barnes Dr Thomas G, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via Wikimedia Commons

Mandrake is the common name for Mandragora officinarum which belongs to the Solanaceae (nightshades) family. Mayapple is the common name for Podophyllum peltatum and related plants of the Berberidaceae family that are native to the moist, shady soils found in the deciduous forests of Indiana and the rest of eastern North America. Like the mandrake, the only part of the mayapple that is not poisonous is the ripe fruit. Both plants have been used for medicinal purposes.

Mayapples are one of the first plants to leaf out in spring. They thrive in moist, fertile soil. Though plentiful in wooded areas, they are not confined to forested ground and can also grow in other untilled, shady areas. They are easy to recognize by their umbrella shape.

Mayapples are perennials that propagate by growth of the underground rhizome or by flowering. In early spring (late March or early April in southern Indiana), slender stalks appear above the soil and will eventually reach a height of 12 to 18 inches with green leaves about 12 inches across. The leaves first appear above the soil tightly wrapped around the stalk, looking like a folded umbrella. As the stalk grows, the leaves unfurl like an opening umbrella, to form a leaf canopy. Because they grow from a maze of rhizomes beneath the soil, the plants form groups or colonies of mayapples.

Mayapple leaves are many-lobed, and each stalk will typically have either one leaf or two leaves. Only a stalk with two leaves will bear a flower. The flower bud appears at the end of the stalk where the stems of the two leaves join. The flower bud is at the tip of the plant as it first pokes above the ground. As the stalk grows, the leaf stems grow taller than the bud, which remains near the crux of the stems. The flowers have six to nine white petals with pale yellow centers. They bloom in late spring, but the blooms may be hidden from view by the overarching leaves.

The flower forms a berry or “apple” about 1 ½ inches long that turns a pale yellow as it ripens in mid-summer, after the leaves have wilted. The fully-ripe berry is edible in small amounts and may reportedly be used to make jams and beverages, though it is hard to imagine that it is worth the effort. The ripe fruit is said to have a mild taste like an overripe melon.

Herbal concoctions that are labeled “mandrake” and described as having the properties of “mandrake” attributable to the Madragora plant often do not contain Madragora at all, but are made from mayapples, and may produce unexpected results. One person who ingested an herb packaged as “mandrake”, expecting a hallucinogenic high, was hospitalized for severe nausea and vomiting. It was determined that what he actually consumed was mayapple.

Native Americans used the root of the mayapple as a purgative and emetic, to get rid of worms, to treat jaundice, constipation, and fevers. They used the resin to treat venereal warts. Derivatives of the phytochemical, podophyllotoxin, found in mayapples, are used today to treat certain cancers, including lung and testicular cancers and leukemia. One way the derivative drugs work is by inhibiting mitosis to prevent the replication of DNA. Derivatives of podophyllotoxin are also used to treat malaria, psoriasis, and genital warts, and are being tested for use in treating rheumatoid arthritis.

An endangered species of mayapple that grows in the Himalayas, Podophyllum emodi , is the current source for the podophyllotoxin used for pharmaceutical purposes. Interest has shifted to the possible cultivation of the more common North American variety of mayapple, P. peltatum, which also contains podophyllotoxin, as a sustainable alternative.

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