The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, May 24, 2002



Name: May-apple or Podophyllum peltatum, a.k.a. Mandrake, but not the old world mandrake of Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet: "And shrieks like mandrakes torn out of the earth,/That living mortals hearing them, run mad." The new-world mandrake doesn't shriek, and there is no scientific evidence to link it to mortals running mad in Carlisle.

Where and when found: Among the skunk cabbages and the ferns, in the Towle woods. Emerging mid- to late-April, blooming now.

Distinguishing characteristics: A perennial plant standing about one-and-a-half to two feet tall. The leaves have five to seven deeply-cut lobes, are roughly circular with a twelve inch diameter, and rise every few inches from a long, horizontal, brown rhizome. There are two forms: one leaf and no flower, or two leaves with a single white flower between them. When the plant emerges in the spring, the leaves are neatly folded around the stalk like a furled umbrella. The unfurled leaves are held parallel to the ground forming a kind of roof which hides the heavily scented flower below.

Habitat: Rich moist soil in open woods and pastures in the eastern half of the U.S. and southern Canada.

Edibility: The small, yellowish, lemon-shaped fruit does not look like an apple nor taste like an apple. (Common names are troublesome things.) Wyman reports that while the fully ripened fruit can be made into a luscious marmalade, if several are eaten they can cause diarrhea. As one who doesn't enjoy diarrhea, I interpret "several" to mean more than one. Other parts of the plant are reputed to be poisonous.

Materia medica: The dried rhizome was listed in the U.S. Pharmacopeia XVI as a source of podophyllum resin for topical application as a caustic for certain papillomas, or for internal use as a drastic purgative.

For the garden: May-apple makes an excellent plant for the wild garden if you have the rich moist soil conditions and the room to let it run. (It bounds exuberantly around its habitat like an Irish Setter.) Once you have a large stand of them, you can sacrifice some for a rather exotic cut flower. Don't harvest from the wild ­ you can get them at Blanchette Gardens on Rutland Street.

References: Carol Woodward and Harold Rickett, Common Wildflowers of the Northeastern United States; Donald Wyman, Wyman's Gardening Encyclopedia, Edward P. Claus, Pharmacognosy.

Submissions for the Biodiversity Corner are encouraged from everyone. The organism doesn't have to be unusual. The only requirements are that it exists in the wild and was seen in Carlisle. Send in your ideas or a whole column to Kay Fairweather at 392 School St.reet, Carlisle MA 01741 or to

2002 The Carlisle Mosquito