This little plant is the apple of my eye.
Found in wet meadows and woods, May apple beckons the botanist with its unique appearance, ancient lore, and potential for danger.
May apple is hard to miss and easy to remember. When the plant first emerges in the spring, there is a single stem that ends in a single leaf. Rarely growing higher than one and a half feet, May apples have only that one large leaf per stem. Then the stem will divide into two, and at the axis of the divide a flower emerges. The flower is white with a yellow center and blooms in May, providing the most common name for this plant. The scent, however, has been described as nauseating. Following the flower will be a fruit, but more on that later.
It is no wonder that May apple is also called duck’s feet or the umbrella plant (although it would be a small creature indeed that could use it as an umbrella). Its scientific name, Podophyllum peltatum, translates into the ‘foot-leafed’ or ‘shield-like’ plant, describing those large peculiar leaves. Its other aliases include Adam’s apple, raccoon berry, wild lemon, hog apple, and American mandrake.
That last name creates some confusion. May apple is not related to the legendary Old World mandrake or man root, though it shares a name due to the similarities in its root structure. These plants do share the same fatal flaws, since both plants can cause death.
Like mandrakes, May apples are a known poison. Beware, all but the very ripe fruit of the May apple is toxic to humans. Don’t consume its leaves, roots, stems, seeds or green fruit. Only when the fruit is yellow and very ripe can it be consumed. Some wild food connoisseurs say it is exceptional:
“And will any poet sing
Of a lusher, richer thing
Than a ripe May-apple, rolled
Like a pulpy lump of gold
Under thumb and finger tips,
And poured molten through the lips.”
Sources say that the fruit makes a fantastic jam, but I will decline a nibble. However tasty it may be, it is not to die for.
While May apples are known to have some medicinal properties, their use is not without extreme risk. Native Americans utilized May apples as a treatment for snakebites, dropsy, syphilis and — then, as now — for treatment of skin disorders, especially warts. Research is under way on its use as a treatment for leukemia.
But still, this is one type of apple that your doctor would tell you to steer well clear of. In fact, eat it and you will need a mortician more than a physician. It may just be the one apple of the May crop that spoils the whole bunch.
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.