Photo courtesy of Stacey Hirvela.
There were two specific requests I recall making of the librarian at Johnson Elementary School, where I attended second grade. One was, inexplicably, a book on UNICEF, and the other was a book on wildflowers, which was how I came to read Flowers: A Guide to Familiar American Wildflowers by the inimitable Herbert Zim.
Zim's dreamy, idealized illustrations placed most of the wildflowers in their natural environment, and sometimes included details like close-ups of the seeds or flowers. I don't come from a family of gardeners, so maybe that's why I couldn't get enough of the book, returning to the beginning each time I finished flipping through it. The illustration of mayapple made a particular impact on me, as that Sunday, as my family drove to church, I spotted these plants growing along the side of the road. "Look at all the mayapples!" I said.
Photo courtesy of Stacey Hirvela
Name: Podophyllum peltatum
Common name: Mayapple
Hardiness: Zones 3-8
Mature height: 12 to 18 inches
Mature spread: 6 to 12 inches
Classification: Native ephemeral
Landscape use: Groundcover for wet areas and native plant gardens (abundant water prolongs its persistence, so it may be less ephemeral if well-placed in a landscape than in nature)
Ornamental characteristics: Bold foliage, showy white flowers, edible yellow fruit; forms large colonies and spreads quickly under optimal conditions
My mother turned suddenly to the back seat. "The what?"
"The mayapples." I'm sure she thought I was making it up, as when we drove home and I said it again, she had an even more confused look on her face and asked what in the world I was talking about. I pointed out the little umbrella-like plants growing at the edge of the woods. It was spring in Michigan, and the plants had just emerged and unfurled their leaves - a very easy ID for a 7-year-old with a nascent interest in wildflowers.
Mayapple, Podophyllum peltatum, is an ephemeral perennial, growing native in moist woods in much of the Eastern United States. As the scientific name describes, it emerges with either one (first-year seedlings) or two (mature, flowering plants) peltate leaves in early spring, superficially resembling pachysandra as imagined by a 1960s psychedelic poster artist: louder, bolder, idealized. Flowers appear mid-spring, but the uninitiated are likely to miss the large, white, showy blooms, typically borne under the umbrella of foliage. Its fruit - the eponymous mayapple (though it doesn't ripen until much later than May) - is edible and tasty, though the rest of the plant is highly toxic. The fruit can only be consumed when it is soft and fully ripe, at which point it turns an orangey yellow, quite atypical for a member of the Berberidaceae, known mostly for blue or red berries. Mayapples are prized delicacies among wild food enthusiasts; it is said its taste is reminiscent of pineapple and strawberries.
Few other species or varieties were widely available to gardeners until relatively recently, but now collector's nurseries sell the showier (and less hardy) Asian species P. hexandrum and P. pleianthum; Terra Nova Nursery's Janet Egger developed an especially fabulous selection known as 'Spotty Dotty', a complex hybrid of multiple Podophyllum species, with very showy speckled leaves. All of these offer larger, glossier foliage than our native type, and maroon-red flowers instead of the creamy white we see here.
The garden I dream of has a Podophyllum collection in it somewhere, and much of it consists of good old-fashioned Michigan strains of P. peltatum, for which I still have the deepest affection. Until I finally buy some property and make it a reality, though, I'll have to settle for the large colony that grows on the edge of a trailer park I pass on my way into work.
Though 30-plus years have passed since I first identified the plant, every spring morning as I drive by that patch, I still say it out loud: "Look at all the mayapples!"
Marketing Specialist, Spring Meadow Nursery, Proven Winners/Color Choice Shrubs
Grand Haven, Mich.