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The modest mayapple

by Alison Singer

What first caught my eye was the tightly wound green bundle atop the stem. They looked like closed umbrellas. “What are those?” I asked, pointing.

“It’s Jack-in-the-Pulpit,” my friend told me, and I let the name slide over my tongue. I pictured a preacher clasping his hands in front of his congregation, his head bowed.

“It’s bloodroot,” my father said, and I imagined piercing the thick stem with a needle and watching red liquid ooze out of it.

The plant I was so enthralled with was neither Jack-in-the-Pulpit nor bloodroot, but Podophyllum peltatum, commonly known as the mayapple. Within a matter of days, the leaves had unfurled, spanning several inches, looking even more umbrella-like.

They took over the ground, preventing me from seeing anything beneath their foliage. My favorite part of these plants is the flower peeping out from beneath the leaves.

I am used to color bursting forth from atop stems, brightening the ground as I lord above it.

Mayapples are different. Each May, all over the Eastern United States and Canada, their flowers bloom. The plants are either one or two-leaved, and only the two-leaved plants produce flowers. If you look beneath the unfurled leaves (Peltatum is Latin for “shield-like,” an apt term for the broad leaves that shield the flowers from view), a delicate bloom emerges from the crotched stem.

The petals are milky white, and about two inches across, with a yellow center, making the blossom look something like an egg. While the flower blooms in May, the fruit, which gives the plant its common name, does not appear until later in the summer, around September. The “apple” is a yellowish fruit, 1-2” long, and is the only part of the plant that is not poisonous. The apple is described as tasting anywhere from completely tasteless to lemony; the one I tried was bland with a hint of lemon. And though the plant is very poisonous, and classified by the FDA as “unsafe,” there are many medicinal uses, most of which I fortunately have no need for.

Mayapple has been used as medication by indigenous people, by gathering and drying the rhizome (the underground stem which can grow up to six feet in length), and grinding it into a powder. The powder - brewed like a tea, has been used as a laxative and cure for intestinal worms. Extracts from the mayapple plant are also being used to treat genital warts and skin cancer.

While not one to blithely disregard cancer treatments, my fascination with the mayapple stems primarily from its physically dramatic entrance. The initial sight: an aerodynamic structure, like a missile aimed towards the sky. Then the leaf, or leaves, slowly unwinds from the stem and fans out, arching over the ground. Were I tiny, I would happily grab the nearest mayapple leaf to cover myself with in a sudden rain squall. Not being Lilliputian and thankfully not suffering from skin cancer or warts, the only use mayapple has for me is its beauty and uniqueness, which is enough.

When I returned to the first spot I found them, I was amazed to see how the small, bundled plants had grown into giant (relatively – the stems average 15-20” tall, and the leaves span 10-15”) umbrellas. Because of their long rhizomes, mayapples tend to grow in clusters, and they can be seen throughout the region, blanketing forest floors. The flower that bows its head beneath the great leaves reminds me of a supplicant, which in turn reminds me of my own relationship with nature.

While most flowers struggle to attract pollinators with their bright colors open to the sky, the bashful mayapple seems to hide. In the same way, I am hidden as I walk beneath the canopy of trees. I find peace and solitude in the woods, away from “pollinators,” from people wanting my attention, needing me for something. In the mayapple’s unusual flower, I have found a metaphor for myself. And more than just a metaphor. A reminder of how I want to approach the mayapple’s forested world – humble, shy, non-intrusive. Nothing more than a supplicant bowing my head as I search for peace beneath the dappled greenery.

Alison Singer a PhD candidate in the Department of Community Sustainability at Michigan State University, where she studies narrative and science communication. Read more from Alison at On Love and Nature.


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