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Reflections in Nature: Mayapple is one of the easiest plants to identify in the woods

PHOTO PROVIDED Shown is a bloodroot plant.

May is the month when we see wildflowers blooming in the fields and along the roadsides. The plants known as Mayapples can be seen growing in mass in the woods.

The common name of Mayapple was given because the fruit appears as apples during the month of May. In some areas, the fruit will ripen during May, but not in our area. Those who enjoy picking and eating wild foods are familiar with the Mayapple’s lemon yellow fruit, which is the reason wild lemon is one its common names. Other common names for the Mayapple are wild mandrake and umbrella leaf. The common name of mandrake comes about because it is similar in appearance to the true mandrake.

All parts of the plant are poisonous, except the apples are edible when they ripen and turn yellow. However until the apples ripen, all parts of the plant are poisonous and contain podophyllotoxin, a crystalline toxin, which is a strong cathartic. If eaten, an inflammation of the eyes and skin could result.

The plant is being used in experiments dealing with cancer and also by plant breeders to induce polyploidy — the presence of more than two sets of chromosomes — in plants which result in new species.

The Mayapples’s scientific name is Podophyllum peltatum. The generic name comes from a Greek word meaning foot leaf, with the species name referring to the large, conspicuous leaf.

The Mayapple is one of the easiest plants to identify in the spring woods. The plant has a pair of large leaves that are somewhat shaped as an umbrella. The two large palmately divided leaves grow high on the stem, with a single flower standing erect on a short stalk that rises from the end of the thickened root.

If soil conditions are good, the plant could reach a height of 18 inches. You will find non-flowering young plants with only one leaf that sometimes reach 12 inches in diameter.

Two large leaves hide the waxy white flower, which is about an inch in diameter. Although I find that the flower has a bad odor, some flies, bees and bumblebees must find its odor attractive for the plant is visited often. The flower has no nectar but does provide pollen for the bees, which in turn cross-pollinate the plant.

An old mountain superstition warns about the digging up and moving of the Mayapple. It seems that if a girl pulls up the root of the Mayapple she will soon become pregnant. The true mandrake was at one time sold to women as an assurance of fertility.

Another plant that could be seen on a walk in the woods is the bloodroot, which is a white flower that could be two inches across and grows on a stem that rises from the rootstock. Its single leaf has three to seven deep lobes.

The common name of bloodroot comes from the deep reddish brown sap that comes from the roots. The Native Americans used this sap as war paint; to dye cloth and baskets; on rattlesnake bites; and as an insect repellent. The sap contains an alkaloid that affects the nervous system and muscles of the body if ingested.

The early colonists used a drop of sap on a lump of sugar as a cough medicine. The sap had to be used very sparingly when taken internally because of the poisonous roots.

Another common name of the bloodroot is red puccoon, referring to the color of the juice that comes from the roots. The word puccoon is from the Indian word pak, meaning blood.

Since bloodroot is one of the early wildflowers, it is sometimes hit with a late frost, which causes the flower’s petals to fall off. The leaves that curl around the base of the stem give the flower some protection from the cold. The leaves, which only unfurl after the plant is pollinated, continue to grow until mid-summer.

The thick rootstock of the bloodroot enables the plant to store food underground for the winter. Due to this available food supply, the plant is able to bloom earlier in the year than fibrous-rooted plants, which must manufacture food in the spring for the preparation of blooming.

The blooming of the bloodroot occurs while the trees are leafless, allowing sunlight to penetrate onto the forest floor. The flower is pollinated by bees, and the resulting fruit is usually a capsule with one cell.

Bill Bower is a retired Pennsylvania Game Commission Wildlife Officer. Read his blog and listen to his podcasts on the outdoors at www.onemaningreen.com.

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