The Mighty May Apple

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A May apple is ripe and ready to eat when the greenish globe turns yellow and/or falls to the ground.
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A May apple is also known as a young, fertile "umbrella plant." When mature, the 12 to 18-inch-tall plants bear but one or two large, flat leaves.

Learn about the May apple plant as well as beneficial nutritional facts.

May Apple Recipes

May Apple Punch Recipe
May Apple Preserves Recipe

The Unique Fruit: May Apples

If you’ve been looking for something really
different to spice up your daily menu — a unique fruit,
say, with an indescribably exotic flavor that conjures up
visions of sunny tropical isles — chances are you won’t
have to look much further than your own back yard.

Because the mighty May apple bears just such a treat. And
if you live anywhere in the eastern half of the United
States between Quebec and Florida, you shouldn’t have any
trouble finding enough of the fruit to make loads of
succulent preserves and a gallon or two of the most
delicious summer punch this side of the Garden of Eden!

Fortunately for all of us, the May apple (known among
scientific circles as Podophyllum peltatum) is
one of the simplest to identify of all forest forageables.
The species is sometimes called “umbrella plant” or “duck’s
foot” . . . and it’s easy to see why. The mature plant,
which bears one or two large (often a foot across) flat
leaves centrally attached to either a single or
“Y”-branched stem, by gosh, looks like a miniature
umbrella. And because its expansive foliage is deeply
cleft, some naturalists (the more imaginative ones, anyway)
think it resembles — yep, you guessed it — a duck’s
foot.

The best places to look for May apple plants are moist,
open woods and the edges of boggy meadows. Keep your eyes
open for a cluster of greenery, rather than lone specimens.
Podophyllum peltatum grows from a single
underground rhizoid stem which — in very early
spring — sends up dozens of finger-shaped shoots
sporting young leaves tightly furled around a central
stalk. Within a matter of just a few weeks, huge rambling
colonies of full-blown specimens twelve to eighteen inches
tall blanket entire patches of ground, completely shading
(and in effect mulching) the earth from which they’ve
sprung.

Interestingly enough, only the dual-leaved “Y”-branched
members of the community bear flowers and fruit. In
mid-spring, a single large (two inches in diameter) white
blossom with six to nine petals appears at the fork of each
“Y”-plant’s stem, nodding inconspicuously beneath its own
personal “umbrella.” The bloom is a true forest beauty . . . although the odor it exudes is downright nasty.

Then, in June or early July (depending on the climate where
you live), the attractive blossom gives way to a smooth,
fleshy “berry” the size and shape of a small lemon. The
little globe is at first green, but — within a matter
of weeks — ripens to a distinct yellow. Strangely
enough, the plant’s foliage dies off at about the same time . . . so that, come apple-hunting season (mid-July or August) often only the dry, bare stems and the fruit remain. (Which, incidentally, is why it’s a good idea to
“scout out” and actually map May apple patches in the early
spring, when the distinctive green leaves make positive
identification easy. Then you can simply return in
midsummer and harvest the goodies with no fear of
getting — shudder — the wrong thing by mistake.)

Once you do strike off into the woods with empty collecting
bags in hand — and visions of sweet punch and preserves
in your head — remember that the luscious, fragrant,
ambrosial May apple fruit ain’t luscious, fragrant, or
ambrosial until it is dead ripe. The skin should be clear
yellow (with no green showing) . . . the pulp should be
translucent and have a jellylike texture . . . and the
berry itself should be just about ready to fall to the
ground. Some folks (of the “persimmon” school of foraging),
in fact, won’t collect the fruit at all unless it has
dropped to earth as evidence that it’s ready to be eaten.

What does a fully mature May apple fruit taste like? Well,
to be honest, I can’t really give you an adequate
description. All I can say is that the sweet, mildly acid
flavor has been likened to that of papayas, and
strawberries, and cantaloupes . . . but none of those
comparisons really does the job. You’ll just have to find
out for yourself.

Be careful, though: When it comes to eating these little
rascals, overindulgence is far too easy . . . and the
consequences are all too similar to the gastrointestinal
furor that comes from consuming too many green apples.

At any rate, I can tell you for sure that the fruit of the
May apple tastes good (to say the least). Chances
are, once you’ve sampled one or two of the elusively
flavored berries in the field, you’ll want to gather up as
many as you can to take home. And in that case, I suspect
you might want to try my two favorite May apple recipes
(enjoy, enjoy!).


A Short Medicinal History of the May Apple

Down through the years the May apple (Podophyllum peltatum) has had many common names, including wild jalap, hog apple, ground lemon, Indian
apple, raccoon berry, and American mandrake. The plant
sometimes received that last name not because it is in any
way directly related to the European mandrake (Podophyllum peltatum is a member of the barberry
family while Mandragora officinarum, the European
mandrake, belongs — like the potato, the tomato, and
belladonna — to the nightshade family) . . . but
because podophyllin — a bitter, resinous extract taken
from the roots, leaves, and stems of the May
apple — does have medicinal powers that somewhat
resemble those of the European mandrake. The medicinal dosage of podophyllin is very small and overdoses can kill . . . so do not eat the roots or foliage
of the May apple (just as you should never eat the sprouts
of the potato). The Penobscot Indians used the crushed roots of the May
apple as a poultice for the removal of warts and the
Menominee tribe considered the stems and foliage of the
plant to be a good pesticide. They boiled those parts of
the May apple in water and then applied the cooled liquid
to their potato patches to repel the insects that attacked
them. — Freddä Burton

See the May apple recipes at the top of this article.