This is a story about apples, but not the kind that keep the doctor away — that is unless you have a liver ailment. The cleverest amongst y’all may have already concluded, and correctly so, that this is a story about Podophyllum peltatum, the “May Apple."
Here’s an extremely easy-to-grow, native perennial plant that is as much at home in average soils as it is in moist to wet soils. Podophyllum peltatum, believe it or not, is a member of the Berberidaceae (Barberry) family and native to more than half of the U.S. and Canada.
I sometimes find it difficult to imagine that this attractive native is related to the weedy, thorny, invasive “Japanese Barberry Bush”, Berberis thunbergii. But then agai, so are two of my other faves, Jeffersonia diphylla (“Twinleaf”) and Caulophyllum thalictroides, (“Blue Cohosh”). The way things are going with botanical nomenclature these days, it probably won’t be long until they create a new plant family, “Podophylliaceae.
If you’re curious about the origin of this plant’s name, in Latin, podo means foot and phyllum of course means leaf. Peltatum translates to shield. So, while using your imagination, you have a plant with a leaf that resembles a foot and a shield.
Regarding my comment above about a liver ailment, I was alluding to the fact that this plant has been used medicinally for centuries. Remember “Carters Little Liver Pills”? Well, a resin from the roots of the may apple was one of the ingredients.
The list of symptoms from genital warts to liver cleansing, that the resin from the roots of Podophyllum peltatum was used for, seems endless, but I’ll issue my standard “don’t try this at home kids” disclaimer here — it can also be quite toxic. Current research has shown that two of the derivatives of the plant exhibit promising anti-tumor properties.
Now where does the common name derive? Well, that’s pretty logical, let’s start with the flower. You have to do a little rummaging around to find the flower as it’s hidden below the huge leaf or leaves, as a mature plant will have two. For a real treat, get down on your hands and knees and insert your proboscis into the center of the rather large, 2-inch to 3-inch, cream-colored flower. Prepare to be surprised as the fragrance is intoxicating.
After the flower is pollinated, a fruit is formed that somewhat resembles an apple. All this takes place in May, so there you have it. The fruit is frequently used to make jams and jellies, as it’s the only part of the plant that isn’t poisonous.
So, what about cultivating this stunning plant in your own garden? That’s a task on the easy side. Although in nature Podophyllum peltatum seems to favor moist soils, it also does well in average garden soils. The moister the soil, the more extended the growing period. In average to dry soil, they can fade out in the heat of summer, but give them some extra moisture and a good mulch and I’ve had them persist into the fall.
An average, plant reaches the height of 12 to 18 inches and will form a nice colony in just a few years.
OH! And this just in: My esteemed editor, Ms. Kathy Jentz, implored me to make you aware of a fascinating connection between May Apples and turtles. It seems that that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles get their super powers from partaking the fruit of this plant. Just kidding… but there really is a Turtlean connection as the “American Box Turtle”, Terrapene carolina carolina, — and the species is carolina carolina is not a typo — finds the fruits absolutely delectable and studies have found that seeds passed through the turtles digestive system have a much higher germination rate than those dropping to the ground and left to their own devices.
This is no surprise to me, as I’ve used the acid scarification technique with hydrochloric acid on seeds that are difficult to germinate, including Cornus canadensis.
If you don’t have the time to follow turtles around, waiting for them to have bowel movements, I recommend propagation by rhizome division. This is pretty easy as the plant produces a robust bud every year and if you cut the rhizome in half — voila! — you have two plants.
May Apples are very varmint-proof and make good companions for its relatives mentioned above and also Hosta, Cimicifuga (Now Actaea), and, well, just use your imagination and experiment.
Barry Glick founded Sunshine Farm and Gardens in 1972 on 60 acres in Greenbrier County, West Virginia. His plant collection now numbers more than 10,000 taxa, many unknown to cultivation. Several of these plants have been introduced to gardening in recent years. Barry exchanges seeds and plants with people at arboretums, botanic gardens, nurseries and private gardens in virtually every country in the world. Peruse Barry’s speakers series here and read the rave reviews here. If you have any questions, would like to chat about any plants that Barry offers, send an email to his personal email address. Read all of Barry’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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