Sunday, July 24, 2016

before the thunderstorm

before the thunderstorm
mayapples bow to the ground
weighed down by their fruit

We have a small colony of Mayapple growing around a magnolia tree to the south of our house. In the nearby woods, these colonies can be quite extensive, excluding other wildflowers. They are safe from being eaten by mammals due to the bitter taste and poisonous qualities, but the larva of a sawfly do feed on the leaves.

Today, as I pass our little patch to hang linen sheets on the clothesline stretched between three shagbark hickories, I notice one "apple" lying on the ground under the tree, still attached by a curving stem to the main stalk, now drying up along with the two large umbrella leaves. In late July the berry is the size of a hen egg or small lemon or lime, but with smooth skin. This fruit is not quite ripe, half green, half yellow. A small groove runs from the stem end to the blossom end, now a black shriveled remnant. When I pick up the oval fruit it falls off the stem. Because it's still half green, I bring it inside to ripen on the kitchen windowsill.

The fruit is edible, but you definitely do not want to eat it until it's completely ripe, and then only when the rind and seeds have been removed. The entire plant is highly toxic. Touching the root and then touching the eyes causes severe inflammation, intense pain and loss of vision for two days. Eating the root causes death in a few hours, unless one is given an emetic. Box turtles will eat the ripe fruit, and possibly such mammals as opossums, raccoons and skunks, which then disperse the seeds in their feces.

Mayapple is also known as American mandrake, ground lemon, duck's foot and umbrella plant. The scientific name, Podophyllum pelatum, is derived from the shape of the leaves. A combination of Greek words, podos means "foot," phyllon means "leaf" and pelatum means "shield." So, "foot-shaped leaf shield." The leaves are round with deeply cut lobes, like a duck's foot. In some plants the lobes are narrower, in others, wider.

Only plants with double leaves produce flowers and fruit, and they do effectively act as a shield, hiding the single pendant white blossom and the green fruit until it matures. When the fertile plant first emerges in early spring, it looks like a fantastic creature with a green head, the flower bud, and folded green wings, the double leaves.

Below, an oval green berry is emerging in a cross-pollinated flower. The spring flowers are short-lived but it takes several months for the berry to mature. In late July or early August the leaves turn brown and the stem falls over, bringing the ripe fruit to the ground. 

As with many toxic plants, Podophyllum pelatum has its medicinal uses, for example, as a purgative, a laxative, a vermifuge, and topically for the treatment of warts and some types of skin cancer. Two drugs are made from Mayapple: etoposide, for testicular and small-cell lung cancer, and teniposide for infancy leukemia and brain tumors.

I have read that the ripe fruit is delicious, though as usual with taste, people find it difficult to describe: sweet but sour, like wild grapes, passionfruit, banana. I'll let you know if my windowsill specimen becomes ripe enough to eat.

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