The Glory Days of September

After the slow, hot days of summer, September with its often cooler, drier days is a welcome relief.

A chestnut-sided warbler in the fall

A chestnut-sided warbler in the fall (Photo by Kaaren Perry on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Most of the fair-weather songbirds are still here, but some are already on the move by the beginning of the month. I looked out on a wet day in early September and caught a flush of birds taking shelter in the juniper tree beside my study window.

I easily identified a black-and-white warbler, black-throated green warbler, blue-headed vireo, two red-eyed vireos and a black-capped chickadee. But one bird stumped me. It turned out to be a first fall female chestnut-sided warbler, according to my Peterson bird guide, what he once called one of the “confusing fall warblers,” those that no longer sport the bright colors of spring. They are mostly the males but also include females and the young of the year.

In addition, with no need to attract mates, most male songbirds no longer sing which makes identifying them even more challenging. An exception is the common yellowthroat that is still singing his distinctive “witchedy, witchedy” song in mid-September. He also retains his black mask but neither the olive-brown female nor their young—all with yellow throats and breasts—have masks.

A yellow-rumped warbler in the fall

A yellow-rumped warbler in the fall (Photo by Ryan Mandelbaum on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

I’m not a keen birder, like two of my sons, so I am content to leave the sorting of the puzzling birds to them. Still, I appreciate yellow-rumped warblers that visit our First Field in flocks. They may be mostly brown and white in fall but both sexes and the immatures always sport bright yellow rumps.

Ovenbirds too remain the same, looking much like thrushes except for the orange patch lined in black atop their heads. In September the adult birds have left for their wintering grounds in Mexico, Central America or the West Indies, and their offspring have to manage on their own. They are much bolder than their parents and continue walking on the woods floor when I encounter them.

A chipmunk in a Pennsylvania forest

A chipmunk in a Pennsylvania forest (Photo by Brian Henderson on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

One beautiful September day I sat inside our three-acre deer exclosure on Turtle Bench watching chipmunks, including one that had a hole at the base of a witch hazel tree a couple feet from the bench. But first one young ovenbird, followed by a second one, walked past and poked on and under the leaves searching for food. The first one ranged back and forth and then wandered off but the second ovenbird stayed near the bench probing at dead leaves. The youngster leaped up several times to snatch insects from a red oak seedling, but eventually it also wandered away. And all the while numerous chipmunks chased and called, ignoring me just as the ovenbirds had.

I’m never happier than when I can watch wildlife unaware of or uncaring of my presence. The easiest mammals to watch on our mountain are porcupines. One September morning I was almost to the top of our First Field Trail when I spotted a large, probably male, porcupine heading my way. I moved to the side of the mossy trail as he stumped past. Then I decided to follow him.

He sniffed at ferns as he passed them and clambered over or under fallen trees. He seemed bent on moving rapidly straight into the upper end of the exclosure fence. Since I was several hundred feet from one of the three gates into the exclosure, I paralleled him on the trail outside.

Occasionally, he stopped and sniffed but kept walking fast. He reached the Turtle Bench area where I had been sitting only moments before. I carefully opened the gate and eased my way into the exclosure. He sniffed around the base of our 1812 red oak tree and then headed directly toward me. I moved aside as quietly as I could, but the dried leaves crunched beneath my feet and he was alerted. He looked up, sniffed in my direction, and I could hear the clattering of his teeth as he fanned his quill-filled tail. Still, I didn’t move and he made several attempts to come toward me, clearly wanting to go through the gate area and back to the First Field Trail. Finally, he gave up, turned, and walked down through the middle of the exclosure.

A porcupine on the forest floor

A porcupine on the forest floor (Photo by Steven Kersting on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

I let him get ahead of me before quietly following. He circled a few trees sniffing and then sniffed and reared up on his hind legs like a woodchuck. Again he started toward me, but then turned and disappeared into a large area of horse balm and spotted touch-me-nots and flushed a young ovenbird. I assumed the porcupine either hid there until I left or went out through the fence.

Even though he knew something—a possible threat—was nearby, he didn’t climb a tree to escape as porcupines usually do. At 20 feet away, I had heard his warning teeth clacking. He seemed to have excellent hearing and sense of smell, but he showed no interest in food like a porcupine I had watched in the summer carefully picking and eating Pennsylvania smartweed from a large patch of stiltgrass.

I decided he might have been tracking a pre-estrous female. According to Uldis Roze, in his book The North American Porcupine, mid-September to mid-October is the mating time for porcupines, and males begin by following odor plumes sent out by pre-estrous females. Since females are only in heat 8-to-12 hours a year, males like to be on site several days in advance, guarding a female by climbing into her tree and waiting on a lower branch, sniffing the air or her branch to see if she is ready to accept him. The males often wait several days and sometimes compete with other males for her acceptance. The porcupine I followed did rub his head at the base of several large trees leaving his own scent I assumed, although Roze didn’t mention this action in his book.

Monarch butterflies on goldenrod

Monarch butterflies on goldenrod (Photo by Rachel Laubhan / USFWS on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Once I lost sight of the porcupine, I walked over to our 37-acre First Field, which was covered with goldenrod and asters. Dozens of monarch butterflies nectared on the wildflowers along with pearl crescents, smaller butterflies than the monarchs but also colored orange and brown. Unlike the monarch caterpillars, which fed on our common milkweed leaves in mid-summer, the pearl crescents’ food plants are asters.

We have several aster species in our woods as well as in the field. Aster means “star,” hence the words “astronomy” and “astronaut.” In September the Ojibwa Indians smoked asters in their pipes to attract deer and other game. I’m not sure how that worked, but I suppose archery hunters could try it!

Asters, with 55 species in the northeast and goldenrod with 50 are true native wildflowers. The Chippewas called tall goldenrod (Solidago altissima), the last of the five species to bloom in our field, “squirrel tail” because they grow so tall.

A red admiral butterfly on goldenrod

A red admiral butterfly on goldenrod (Photo by BBureau on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Our field of gold draws other migrating butterflies in addition to monarchs. All three are in the genus Vanessa. Most notable are red admirals, which are black with orange and white markings and migrate south for the winter. So too do the orange, black and white, painted and American ladies, all of which also nectar on the goldenrod and asters.

Green darner dragonflies hawk insects above the field on their way south. Sometimes near dusk I have counted as many as 50 hunting on our barn bank.

September is the last month to find blooming wildflowers. At the base of First Field is a wet area that is excellent for turtleheads. Their genus name Chelone is Greek for “tortoise” because their pink and white flowers look like the heads of turtles. Orange and black Baltimore checkerspot butterflies lay their eggs only on turtlehead leaves+, and those butterflies are usually not found more than 10 yards from a patch of turtleheads, as I’ve discovered. The flowers are pollinated by large bees strong enough to push their way into the turtleheads’ one-to-two-inch-long flower tubes to obtain nectar at the bases of the flowers.

A female hummingbird perched among some jewelweed

A female hummingbird perched among some jewelweed (Photo in memoriam: Steve Burt on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

The spotted jewelweeds, also known as touch-me-nots, in the wetland section of our exclosure, have orange-spotted, cornucopia-shaped flowers designed to be pollinated solely by hummingbirds. Their long bills pick up pollen grains from inside the top front of one flower and drop them on the inside top of the next flower when they probe for the nectar. I spend hours there watching as ruby-throated hummingbirds zip from one jewelweed to another. I have also seen bees stealing nectar from jewelweed by biting through the backs of these flowers instead of trying to push their way through the blossoms.

Near the end of September, most of the wildflowers are fading, but by then the witch hazel and black birch understory have turned golden and the black gum trees are red, gold, orange, or pink, giving those of us who hike or hunt in the September woods a special early showing of autumn color that almost makes up for the loss of wildflowers and migrating songbirds, butterflies and dragonflies.

 

Food for Wildlife

After three lean years, our oak trees finally produced a bumper crop of acorns last September. Forewarned by hordes of blue jays screaming from the treetops as they plucked ripe acorns from the oaks, I had to be careful on our steep trails not to slide on the fallen nuts that were more hazardous than marbles.

grey squirrel

Grey squirrel eating an acorn (Juraj Patekar image on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Still, not every section of forested Pennsylvania had a good acorn crop, despite predictions from folks that should know better. Dr. Marc Abrams, a forestry professor at Penn State says there’s “no way to predict it,” calling a heavy mast year “one of the amazing mysteries in nature that we still do not have a handle on.”

Dr. Warren G. Abrahamson, a Bucknell University professor who conducted a long term study of acorn production from 1969 to 1996 with Jim Layne of the Archbald Biological Station in Florida, agrees, although he says that “the production of acorns definitely is not forecasting but hind casting the weather.” In their September 2003 report of their work they claimed that the size of the acorn crop each year is partly controlled by precipitation which affects acorns during different stages of development in prior years.

Other experts think that the group behavior of masting trees called synchrony most likely depends in part on the temperature during pollination in late April or May. Since oaks are wind-pollinated, meaning the wind must transfer pollen from staminate (male) to pistillate (female) flowers, a period of rain might disrupt the process.

For instance, a cold, wet spring in 2012 affected red oak production in 2013 because all the oaks in the black oak group (those with pointed lobes on their leaves) take two years to mature. Those in the white oak group (those with smooth lobes on their leaves) take only a year and would be affected by a late spring frost during pollination.

Still others believe that synchrony occurs as a way to outsmart nut predators by producing more nuts than the predators can eat, ensuring that at least some nuts will grow into trees. But whatever the causes, it is cyclic and occurs every three to five years.

On our dry mountaintop we have mostly chestnut oaks with an occasional white oak in the white oak group. Deer prefer these tastier acorns and squirrels eat them almost immediately because they spoil more quickly than those in the black oak group, which include scrub, black, northern red, and scarlet oaks here. Those acorns the squirrels store.

hickory nut

Hickory nuts form 10 to 25 percent of a squirrel’s diet in a good year (image by Peppysis on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Acorns are not the only hard mast fruit. Others include the squirrels’ favorite—hickories, especially pignut, mockernut, and shagbark—which consists of 10 to 25 % of their diets in a good year and ripen before acorns. But like oaks, as well as the other hard mast producers—American beeches and black walnuts—they are also wind-pollinated.

Hard mast is high in fat, carbohydrates, and protein and is important to at least 180 species of birds and animals in fall and winter, but since it is highly variable in production from year to year, wildlife must depend also on a wide variety of soft mast throughout spring, summer, and fall. These fleshy, perishable fruits high in sugar, vitamins, and carbohydrates include a wide variety of native trees, shrubs, and woody vine species.

Foresters and wildlife biologists, in fact, consider mast to be the woody plant fruits and browse of native trees, shrubs and vines even though the word mast comes from the Old English “maest” which meant the forest tree nuts on the ground that fattened domestic pigs and other animals.

A wide variety of soft mast allows many mammals and birds to survive the lean years of hard mast. Of course, there are always some nuts every year, but ever since the extinction of American chestnut trees which, because they were insect-pollinated and didn’t bloom until summer, reliably produced an excellent crop of nuts, wildlife has had to adjust to a feast or near famine hard mast situation.

Consequently, encouraging biologically diverse meadows and forests, stocked with native trees, shrubs, and woody vine species produces food for wildlife throughout the year. And diverse food leads to diverse wildlife, as we’ve discovered on our property.

Other examples of trees that are insect-pollinated and produce a huge number of seeds every year as well as foliage, twigs and bark are red and striped maples. Striped maple, also called moosewood or goosefoot, has fruit that matures in early fall and is eaten by ruffed grouse, rodents, and songbirds. In addition, it produces browse for deer and bark for rabbits and beaver.

Elk eat the buds, foliate, twigs and bark of red maple, songbirds gorge on the seeds, and squirrels and mice store them for winter.

Basswood is another insect-pollinated tree, producing seeds squirrels and chipmunks consume while deer and rabbits browse its foliage.

The best of the soft mass fruit is that of wild black cherry trees. It fruits abundantly every third or fourth year in August and is pollinated by solitary bees. Seventy bird species feed on the fruit including grouse and wild turkeys. Black bears, raccoons, foxes, rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks and mice relish the dark cherries.

witch-hazel fruit and flowers

Witch-hazel fruit and flowers (Image by Rodger Evans on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

The fruit of sassafras trees, which is high in fat, is eaten by turkeys, bobwhite quail, black bears, pileated woodpeckers and gray catbirds. Rabbits and deer browse its twigs, black bears like its stems and deer its leaves. Despite its popularity, we have many sassafras trees in our forest.

Common witch-hazel, which flowers in late fall, develops woody capsules the following spring and summer. Those capsules contain a pair of shiny, black hard-coated seeds that shoot out in autumn before the next flowering. But squirrels, turkeys, quail, and grouse go after them, especially if the acorn crop fails. Deer browse heavily on witch-hazel, but it persists in growing above the deer line here.

Common spicebush (my personal favorite) produces brilliant spicy red fruits eaten by grouse, pheasants, and quail. It also provides shoots for rabbits and browse for deer, but it too survives and thrives, especially in wet areas along our stream. Our son Dave has planted it as an attractive shrub in our yard and his.

Both red-berried elder, which blooms the same time as the invasive barberry, has red berries available for birds in June or early July, although it only lives on steep slopes here because deer are fond of its browse. Deer also like common elderberry. It blooms in late June or early July and hangs heavy with clusters of dark purple berries favored by birds and humans in late August.

White-throated sparrow with staghorn sumac fruit

White-throated sparrow with staghorn sumac fruit (Kelly Colgan Azar photo on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Staghorn sumac is making a recovery on our property, living on the sunny edges of meadows and forests. Blooming in late June and early July, its greenish-yellow, fragrant flowers morph into bright red, cone-shaped clusters of fruit that last through the winter, providing food for squirrels, songbirds, grouse, pheasants, turkeys and quail. Deer and rabbits browse on this shrub as well.

Wild berries are a popular summer food. First come the lowbush blueberries as early as mid-June on our powerline right-of-way, followed by the huckleberries. Black bears are particularly fond of them, but so are songbirds, grouse, chipmunks, pheasants, and mice.

Black raspberries ripen in early July and blackberries in early August. Both are incredibly important fruit for songbirds, skunks, opossums, foxes, squirrels, chipmunks, and black bears, while rabbits like their cover and rabbits and deer browse on their stems. Of course, the wildlife must also compete with me, especially in the blackberry patches.

Opossum eating wild grapes

Opossum eating wild grapes (photo by pverdonk on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Greenbrier of several species has bluish-black berries eaten by songbirds and gamebirds and deer browse them. They browse wild grapevines too, but wild grapes are among the most important and valuable food for wildlife including songbirds, gamebirds, foxes, skunks, raccoons, opossums, squirrels and deer. The vines provide winter shelter for animals and birds too. I remember one winter when the hard mast failed and deer spent the season among the grapevines of the Far Field thicket, yarding up like they do in northern New England.

My list of native trees, shrubs and vines could be greatly expanded. In other parts of Pennsylvania, particularly south of us, still other wildlife food, such as common papaws, are important. But diversity remains the key to providing abundant wildlife food, even in years when hard mast is scarce.

Pancake Flats

Rhododendron along Green Springs Trail (photo: Stan Kotala)

Rhododendron along Green Springs Trail (photo: Stan Kotala)

On a cool, breezy day in late July, my husband Bruce and I decided to hike on Green Springs Trail. Following precise directions from our friend, Ruby Becker, we drove up the Allegheny Front, locally known as Wopsononock Mountain, on Wopsy Road, seven miles beyond the Penn State Altoona campus and parked in a State Game Lands #108 parking area. Since it was a seven-mile hike, and we are in our seventies, we planned only to hike the first portion, which our son, Dave, who had hiked the trail back in the spring with Juniata Valley Audubon Society members, said was the best part of the hike.

But we hadn’t counted on the seductive beauty of this trail. After a short walk on a gated road lined with a hedge of elderberry shrubs on one side and a bog on the other, we crossed a bridge over Tub Run and entered a mature second growth, mixed deciduous and coniferous forest. Most impressive were the healthy hemlock trees with not a sign of the hemlock woolly adelgid infestation. We followed a footpath through a tunnel of huge rhododendrons, many of which were still blooming. Black-throated green warblers sang “trees, trees, beautiful trees,” expressing our feelings for the impressive hemlocks.

painted trillium fruit along Green Springs Trail (photo: Bruce Bonta)

painted trillium fruit along Green Springs Trail (photo: Bruce Bonta)

The ground was a boggy sponge on either side of the trail and mossy hummocks provided habitat for a wide diversity of spring wildflowers, their leaves evidence that if we returned next spring, we would see blooming painted trilliums, starflowers, Canada mayflowers, Indian cucumber-roots, and trailing arbutus, among others. Beds of partridgeberry and a potpourri of club moss species, as well as lady ferns and cinnamon ferns also favored the wet ground while clumps of white Indian pipes lit up the dark understory.

In addition to black-throated green warblers, occasionally we heard the singing of the brilliant red and black male scarlet tanagers, the persistent red-eyed vireos, and twice a black-throated blue warbler. But a succession of ethereal hermit thrushes provided a continuous choir of music that followed us throughout the five miles of the hike within the forest. Once a hermit thrush and hooded warbler sang at the same time in an unintentional duet.

As we penetrated deeper into the forest, Bruce, armed with a map and compass, kept asking me if I wanted to turn back. He knew that I hate to retrace my steps, and I knew that the complete trail was circular, which is my favorite kind of trail. Furthermore, unlike our hilly home grounds in the ridge-and-valley, this trail was almost flat in an area aptly named Pancake Flats and thus was much easier than I had expected. For that reason, I saw no reason to turn around.

A view of the stream from Green Springs Trail (photo: Stan Kotala)

A view of the stream from Green Springs Trail (photo: Stan Kotala)

Eventually, the trail became rocky, and below us we could hear the gurgle of Green Springs Run. On the woods’ floor were several huge flat rocks with rugs of moss and an understory of wood ferns. Dark-eyed juncos scolded us, and an eastern towhee exhorted us to “Drink your tea.” At last we had a view of Green Springs Run through the hemlocks and rhododendrons and descended to a bridge of large boulders that crossed the water.

We emerged out on to a grassy flat area that was, in reality, an overgrown road. As Bruce moved to examine the taller grasses on the opposite side of the road, he heard the unmistakable rattle of a timber rattlesnake. Although we stayed on the road edge and searched with our eyes to see the elusive reptile, we never did see the creature, but it rattled whenever we approached the underbrush. Finally, we took the hint and plunged back into the deep forest following Green Springs Run along the cleared footpath.

Beside the trail we spotted a pile of feathers—an indication that a predator had found its prey. A rock that had been wrenched out of the ground was evidence that a black bear had been searching for ants. We also paused to admire an enormous white pine beside the trail.

Tub Run from the trail (photo: Stan Kotala)

Tub Run from the trail (photo: Stan Kotala)

We stopped to picnic next to a picturesque small waterfall under a welcoming hemlock tree and then continued on through a forest with many young hemlocks and a nice stand of mountain laurel beneath the larger trees. Apparently, the leaf fungus that has killed many of our mountain laurel shrubs had not reached this game lands.

Cinnamon ferns and unfortunately also the invasive Japanese stiltgrass formed a portion of the understory. But I was delighted to find blooming dewdrops, also known by its genus name Dalibarda. Still another common name is star-violet because its leaves resemble those of violets, but its single, white, five-petaled flowers do not look like violets. In fact, this lover of bogs, peaty barrens and cool, mossy woods is a northern flower that grows at higher elevations on the Allegheny Front, according to Ann Fowler Rhoads and Timothy A. Block in their definitive book The Plants of Pennsylvania. In addition, I noticed the three-leaf, clover-like leaves of northern wood-sorrel, another five-petaled, white flower, that one with pink veins, which lives in the same habitat as dewdrops in Pennsylvania.

The last two miles of the trail were on the gated road. Even though the foot trail looked heavily used, we had seen no one on it, perhaps because we were there on a weekday. But on the road we did see a few people walking past us near the middle of the afternoon.

The trail was also remarkably trash-free except for an upright balloon caught on a sapling, wishing a happy birthday to a one-year-old, that had floated in from who knew where. Billed as “biodegradable” balloons, they still can be ingested by wildlife and last for years. We know this because often we find them on our mountain land above Tyrone, especially after their St. Patrick’s Day celebration when they release 3,000 balloons. We learned years ago that whatever pollution is released in the air eventually returns to earth and the same is true of balloons.

Dalibarda (dewdrops) in bloom along Green Srpings Trail (photo: Bruce Bonta)

Dalibarda (dewdrops) in bloom along Green Springs Trail (photo: Bruce Bonta)

The sunny, open road, in contrast to the dark forest, where we saw only a couple common wood nymph butterflies, was a haven for butterflies—great-spangled fritillaries, spicebush swallowtails, common sulphurs, red-spotted purples, and tiger swallowtails. Common and tall milkweed provided nectar for the butterflies, but sadly we saw no monarch butterflies, despite their milkweed food source.

It had been a terrible year for monarchs, and I had seen not a single one on our property despite abundant milkweed in our First and Far fields. Much later we learned that the population of migrating monarchs in their Mexican winter quarters had been reduced by 80%, an appallingly low number. Not only are their wintering trees being illegally logged in the Mexican mountains, but herbicides, such as glyphosate, used by industrial agriculture in our country, are killing off native milkweed species, the only plants on which the monarchs lay their eggs. So we applauded the managers of this state game lands for providing food and habitat for this rapidly declining butterfly.

The healthy forest and wetland also provide food and habitat for a wide range of birds and mammals. Best of all, from our standpoint, is that this enormous game land provides a refuge for those of us who appreciate wild Pennsylvania.

The Amazing Mayapple

mayapple leaves carpeting ground by Martin LaBa

mayapple leaves carpeting ground by Martin LaBar (Creative Commons BY-NC)

After twelve years, the first mayapples bloomed inside our three-acre deer exclosure. Almost as soon as we put the fence up in March 2001, mayapple leaves popped up in the lower, wet, wooded section of the exclosure. But they were single leaves, not the double leaves with a notch in the middle from which a single, six-petaled, waxy, white flower would emerge.

Last spring on our mountain the first umbrella-shaped mayapple leaves unfurled on March 30, by far the earliest date ever for this wildflower that often doesn’t flower until the second week in May. The frosts of April didn’t wilt the leaves, and on the 18th of April, I found three double-leaved mayapples in the exclosure, each bearing a large flower bud.

The exclosure isn’t the only place mayapples bloom. These clonal plants have formed large colonies beside our road, along Sapsucker Ridge Trail, and beside the Far Field Road. But the largest colony of all covers more than an acre at the Far Field thicket. One leaf even appeared in the middle of the Far Field last spring, but I doubt it will make much headway against the goldenrod and asters.

As usual the first mayapples bloomed along the Far Field Road on April 27, the earliest blooming date ever during our 40 years here, but those mayapples beside our access road didn’t flower until May 1, right in time for May Day.

While the first part of its common name refers to the month it usually flowers in, the “apple” refers to the yellow-green, egg-shaped fruit that is purported to appear in August or September after the plant has fallen down. I say purported because I’ve never actually found a fruit on any of our mayapples. Although the deer allow our mayapples to leaf and flower, they never allow them to fruit. Or maybe the culprit is the occasional eastern box turtle that finds and devours the odd fruit. Apparently, the seeds inside the fruit must go through the gut of a box turtle in order to germinate.

I had always hoped to find enough mayapples to make Euell Gibbons’s mayapple marmalade, which he describes as “ambrosia” in his delightful book on wild foods Stalking the Wild Asparagus. (He also says that “the woods are full of ripe Mayapples.”) Despite having a laxative effect on some people, many have found the taste of mayapple fruit worth the risk. Back in 1612 Captain John Smith described it as “a fruit that the Inhabitants call Maracocks, which is a pleasant wholesome fruit much like a lemond (sic).” The Huron Indians gave it to the French explorer Samuel Champlain in 1619, and he thought it tasted like a fig. Early Rhode Island settlers called it “a pleasant fruite (sic).” Gibbons claims that the flavor “is not easily described…When I eat a thoroughly ripe May apple, I am reminded of several tropical fruits, the guava, the passion fruit and the soursop, but I can’t honestly say that it tastes like any of them.”

Girl balancing mayapple blossom on her nose

Girl balancing mayapple blossom on her nose, by talkingplant (Creative Commons BY-NC-ND)

Even its odor was debated, and Charles F. Saunders, in his book Edible and Useful Wild Plants of the United States and Canada, describes the strong scent of the ripe fruit as a composite of cantaloupe, summer apples, and fox grapes. Gibbons writes that “I love the sweet scent of the ripe fruit with its hint of mysterious muskiness.” But all of this is hearsay as far as I’m concerned.

Despite the appeal of its ripe fruit, its raw leaves and roots are poisonous. Native Americans used the plant to commit suicide and made an insecticide from it to kill corn worms. Today it is an ingredient in laxatives and is useful for the treatment of intestinal worms.

But its most important use derives from its ability to produce podophyllotoxin, which is “the starting material for the semi-synthesis of the anti-cancer drugs etoposide, teniposide and etopophus,” according to Rita M. Moraes, Hemant Lata, Ebru Bedir, Muhammad Maqbool, and Kent Cushman in their paper “The American Mayapple and its Potential for Podophyllotoxin Production.” These compounds have been used to treat lung, testicular, stomach and pancreatic cancers, and some leukemias. It’s also a precursor to a new derivative called CPH 82, which may be useful for treating rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, and even malaria.

It’s expensive for pharmaceutical companies to synthesize podophyllotoxin and originally, back in the 1970s, when its anti-cancer properties were discovered, the pharmaceutical companies used the rhizomes of our mayapple—Podophyllum peltatum—to produce podophyllotoxin. In one year they harvested more than 130 tons of American mayapple rhizomes.

Then the scientists found that P. emodi, a perennial rhizomatous herb growing in the understory of Himalayan subalpine forests, contained more podophyllotoxin than P. peltatum, so during the next three decades, they switched to the roots and rhizomes of the Himalayan species. The demand by the international market for this plant quickly turned it into an endangered species.

Mayapple with fruit and leaves spotted with rust

Mayapple with fruit and leaves spotted with rust by OakleyOriginals (Creative Commons BY)

For this reason Moraes, Lata, Bedir, Maqbool, and Cushman used a different extractive method on the leaf blades of our mayapple to produce podophyllotoxin. Unlike ripping up the roots and rhizomes, which destroys the plants, leaf blades are a continually renewable resource. Then, too, our mayapple is common and grows in large colonies from northern Quebec and Minnesota to Florida and Texas and west to Nebraska. It also thrives under wide-ranging growing conditions from the low winter temperatures of the north to the high summer temperatures of the south.

Like many spring wildflowers, mayapples reproduce both sexually and asexually. Sexually, bumblebees and other long-tongued bees cross-pollinate the flowers from one clonal colony to another, while asexually the rhizomes continually expand in dense circular clones, usually crowding out any competing vegetation. The plants are one to one and a half feet tall and consist of sterile, immature, palmate-shaped, single leaves or two to three, palmately-lobed, reproductive leaves.

Both its genus name—Podophyllum—which means “foot leaf,” and its species name peltatum meaning “shield-shaped” refers to its leaves. So too do three of its common names—”umbrella leaf,” “duck’s foot,” and “Puck’s foot” (the forest fairy in A Midsummer Night’s Dream).

Its fruit has also inspired several alternative names—”Indian apple,” “hog apple,” (wild pigs love it), “wild lemon,” “ground lemon,” and “raccoon berry.”

Its medicinal uses have given it still more nicknames that need more explanation for modern readers. “American mandrake,” the most popular alternative name for mayapple, referred to one of the most powerful of Old World medicinal herbs, mandrake—Mandragora officinarum—that grows in the Mediterranean countries. Its brown root, which penetrates deep into the ground, often branches and resembles a human figure. While neither the plant nor its flower looks like our mayapple, its fruit is a large, fleshy, yellow to orange-colored berry. It was used as a sleeping pill when the sufferer was in pain or being operated on, as a remedy for depression, and as a purgative. Like mayapple, the plant is poisonous.

Mayapple flower

Mayapple flower by M.W. Fisher Jr. (Creative Commons BY-NC-ND)

“Devil’s apple” may refer to its fruit or, more likely, to its medicinal use, because mandrake is also known as “Satan’s apple.” “Vegetable mercury” probably refers to its similar uses to dog’s mercury (Mercurialis perennis) a poisonous plant that is taken as a purgative or laxative. “Vegetable calomel,” comes from the fact that calomel was used as a purgative and as a fungicide and is also called mercurous chloride, which brings me back to the “vegetable mercury” nickname. “Wild jalop” is similarly confusing. Jalop is a Mexican morning glory used as a purgative, but wild jalop (Ipomoea pandurata), the hated bindweed, is used to treat skin diseases and as a laxative by some herbalists although again it is dangerous to overdose on.

A member of the Barberry family, the mayapple genus has only four species worldwide, our own mayapple and three Asian species. It also has its own fungus—Podophyllum podophylli or the mayapple rust, which only lives and reproduces on mayapple leaves. I find some of the angular, yellow spots on some mayapple leaves every spring.

According to Joan Maloof in her book Among the Ancients: Adventures in the Eastern Old-Growth Forests, the life cycle of the mayapple rust is more complex than that of the mayapple itself. When the mayapple germinates, she writes, a “dark, spiky, club-shaped thing smaller than a grain of sand” also germinates in the forest soil and produces tiny spores. All are in search of mayapple shoots.

When one spore finds a mayapple, it produces a “microscopic, threadlike filament” called a hypha, which is in search of another hypha thread made by a second hypha spore. If they find and merge successfully, they create a hypha with two nuclei in every cell instead of one. They then produce more dark, club-shaped spores which germinate and create a second generation of spores just as the mayapple leaves unfurl. Using wind and/or water, those spores are carried on to the stems and leaves of mayapples. Again the spores germinate and their hyphae look for nutrition and each other.

Under the mayapple parasols by Dave Bonta

Under the mayapple parasols by Dave Bonta

If the spores land on a mayapple stem or vein with sufficient nutrition, they will create more dark, club-shaped structures that will overwinter on dead leaves on the forest floor, but if they “fuse on leaf blades, they will form pockets filled with rust-colored spores,” Maloof writes, that cannot live through the winter. However, she adds that they “can reinfect the plant, germinate, and eventually form the dark overwintering clubs.” The yellow spots on the leaves are a signal that the fungus has used up the food in the leaf cells and infected the leaves. But Maloof calls this “Mother Nature’s yellow and green abstract art work,” rejecting the negative connotation of the word “infect.”

Maloof reminds us, after her discussion of mayapple rust, that a forest is more than its trees. “And in ways we do not yet fully understand, these small things may determine the lives and deaths of trees.” And not only those of trees, but of humans too, in the case of our amazing medicinal American mayapple.