Plant Information: American Mandrake

The American mandrake, Podophyllum peltatum, is a familiar plant in woods in April. A guide to the location, biology, lifecycles.

May apple, Podophyllum peltatum, is a familiar plant in the woods in April. The plants look like small umbrellas rising out of the floor of the forest. Widely distributed throughout the eastern United States, May apple, also known as American Mandrake, and Devil's apple, is a highly poisonous plant.

May apple likes well drained soils and rich woodlands where it grows as a perennial in large patches or colonies, arising from a shared stem. The leaves are deeply lobed and umbrellalike, and the solitary white flower dangles at the fork of the stem in May. Its fruit, which is a pulpy lemon yellow oval berry, ripens by July and August. Animals like opossums and raccoons are said to relish the fruit, as do some people, making jellies out of them.

There can be as many as a thousand stems in these colonies, resembling miniature forests. Because all shoots from the common root system are genetically identical, an entire colony is actually a single plant. And a May apple colony has to be 12 years old before it flowers, producing its blossom that resembles a small satellite dish, followed by the fruit. The single stemmed new stalks that originate from the seed have to grow five years before developing a rhizome that can make a forked or flowering stem. These colonies grow very slowly, averaging around four inches a year. So a large colony may be over one hundred years old!

Generally, the seedling plants in the colony don't survive, so the seeds have to start new colonies. This happens when animals eat the seed, and carry them away to a new spot in their digestive tract, animals such as box turtles, that are also said to relish the fruit. All parts of the plant, except the fruit, are poisonous.

North American Indians valued the May apple for its powerful laxative effect, used it to treat intestinal worms, as a cure for warts, snakebite, and even considered it an effective insecticide for their crops. But they were quite aware of its poisonous properties, for they also used it to commit suicide. Pioneers used an extract of the roots as a cathartic and to cure constipation. And more recently, May apple was used as a treatment for skin cancer.

It is the May apple's creeping rhizome, which is pencil-thin and can be up to 6 feet long, that is used medicinally. The gathering would take place in autumn when the plants are dying down, the rhizomes would be dried and crushed into a powder. And although the powder has been used as a remedy for conditions ranging from liver ailments to cancer, it is still best known as a purgative. But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration lists the use of the plant as "unsafe." Although May apple extract has been shown to be effective against skin cancer tumors, unfortunately, it was toxic to underlying tissue. In fact, pharmaceutical workers and their assistants handling the powdered root often developed severe skin sores and eye inflammations.

However, because the extract, called podophyllin, contained at least 20 compounds that could be identified, there was a possibility that some of the beneficial components could be separated from the toxic ones. One of these beneficial components was shown to be effective in relieving the symptoms of rheumatism. With further research, the May apple may prove to be an important plant for mankind!

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