Mayapple, American mandrake, Hog apple
For plant collectors, Podophyllum name sparks instantly the ‘rare plants’ lust. Like with the Arisaema species unfortunately the North American continent wasn’t left with much, one Podophyllum species – the Mayapple. It has its charm and personality and it will very slowly form a colony in the woodland garden.
It emerges in early spring with a couple of tightly closed leaves, which expand umbrella-like afterwards and cover one solitary, white flower. The fleshy fruit (hog apple, wild lemon) becomes yellow when ripe and is enjoyed by a variety of small animals, who are also the principal seed dispersers (the fruit is the only part of the plant that’s not toxic).
But there’s more about the Mayapple than just being a great plant for the shade garden – its Medicinal uses:
The Mayapple has been a staple medicinal plant in the repertoire of the Native Americans, which used it as: boiled roots (laxative), juice of the fresh rhizome (improve hearing), powdered root (skin ulcers and sores, purgative). At some point the Mayapple resin (extracted from the rhizome) was considered one the most powerful laxatives available but because of its toxicity this use disappeared.
Pharmaceutical research proved that certain chemical constituents of the Podophyllum species can be used as anticancer agents. The substance responsible is called podophyllin and it is a resin contained in the rhizome (see the use of powder root to treat skin ulcers). This resin is composed of several toxic glycosides, the most active being podophyllotoxin. Derivatives of the podophyllotoxin (etoposide and teniposide) are formulated today into anticancer drugs used in chemotherapy to inhibit the growth of tumors in various types of cancer.
Unfortunately, in a few regions of the Indian Himalayas, another species, Podophyllum hexandrum, also exploited as medicinal, has become endangered due to overharvesting in the wild. I hope we won’t start destroying our Mayapple populations too. Actually, Podophyllums are very easy to cultivate – all you need is shade …and seeds of course (or rhizomes cuttings).
Note: The genus name comes from the Greek ‘anapodophyllum’ meaning a leaf like the foot (podos) of a duck (anas) and peltatum – refers to the specific attachment of the leaf stalk near the centre of the leaf blade.