Mayapple leaves poke above the ground in early spring, and like an umbrella the leaves unfurl to form a short, bright green groundcover. They are spring ephemeral plants, plants that will go dormant in early summer once the trees have leafed out. Plant one in a woodland garden and over time the underground roots will spread out to form a colony of umbrellas that can be enjoyed every spring for years.
Mayapple shelters its pretty white flower under a pair of large leaves. Plants with single leaves will not produce a flower until they save up enough energy to produce a second leaf another year. As soon as the flower is pollinated, it drops its petals and a small rounded fruit begins to mature, turning pale yellow as the leaves die back in late spring. The fruit is edible when fully ripe, but the unripe fruits and leaves are poisonous. Ripe fruits can be used to make jam or to flavor a punch, but if you choose not to eat them, box turtles and other wildlife will enjoy them. The taste of the fruits has been described as being somewhere between a tomato and a pawpaw.
Mayapples can be grown from seed or from root divisions. The seeds should be planted outdoors in fall and may take up to 6 months to germinate. Potted plants or root divisions can be planted in spring or summer. Mayapples grow well in shady areas with rich, well-drained soils, but once established can tolerate a wide range of sun and shade. Mulch them well with leaves or wood chips in the fall.
Ferns combine well with mayapples in the garden. The fern fronds will hide the dying foliage of the mayapples in early summer and provide green into fall. Both like partial to full shade and moist, rich soils.
Besides the North American mayapple, there are several species of Asian mayapples. The ones available to gardeners bloom later than native mayapples and the leaves last into the summer. They are very sensitive to late frosts though. Asian mayapples tend to grow in clumps and do not spread to form a colony. The leaves may be mottled with purple and some have pink or purple flowers.
A chemical produced by mayapples, podophyllotoxin, is used in some chemotherapy drugs to stop cancer cells from dividing. Mayapples were used by American Indians as a laxative, wart remover, and purgative, but it was used very cautiously because it could be poisonous in large doses.
Article by Sylvan Kaufman. Dr. Kaufman is a writer of popular scientific and gardening articles. She is also an ecological consultant.