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.

Christmas books for nature-lovers

Christmas is coming and even in this super-technological world, some of us still like to curl up with a good book. If you are such a person or if someone like that is on your Christmas list, you might be interested in one of the following books.

Cerulean BluesCerulean Blues: A Personal Search for a Vanishing Songbird by Katie Fallon tells you everything you might want to know about cerulean warblers as she follows researchers at the Lewis Wetzel Wildlife Management Area in West Virginia’s northern panhandle and the Royal Blue Wildlife Management Area a few miles south of the Cumberland Gap in Tennessee’s Cumberland Mountains. Both areas are thought to be in prime cerulean warbler habitat, which researchers say stretches from southwest Pennsylvania through all of West Virginia and into eastern Kentucky and Tennessee.

Along the way, Fallon profiles the prominent senior cerulean warbler researchers — Paul B. Hamel and Petra Wood — as well as the graduate students and others who search for cerulean warbler nests during late spring and early summer. She spends days in the field with them and days in the library researching the history of the cerulean warbler beginning with the early bird artists Alexander Wilson and John James Audubon. Wilson, known as “the father of American ornithology,” was a Scots man who immigrated to Philadelphia. In his Volume II of American Ornithology, he calls the cerulean warbler “one of our scarce birds in Pennsylvania,” but he saw it “on the borders of streams and marshes, among the branches of the poplar” in the Philadelphia area early in the nineteenth century.

Fallon also discusses the threats to cerulean warblers on their breeding and wintering grounds — mountaintop removal coal mining and habitat fragmentation in their core breeding areas and sun coffee agriculture and logging in their wintering habitat in the Andes Mountains of Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, and maybe even as far south as Bolivia.

She even travels to Colombia to attend the Cerulean Warbler Summit and visits the Cerulean Warbler Reserve — a 500-acre forest created through a partnership between ProAves and the American Bird Conservancy in 2005. This was the first reserve in South America created for a bird that breeds in North America.

Because Fallon is a creative writing teacher, her book is lively, and she records numerous adventures both here and abroad. Black and white photos of habitat and people are sprinkled throughout the book such as one of boys dressed as warblers in San Vicente, Colombia, as part of a parade celebrating ProAve’s Fifth Annual Migratory Birds Festival. ProAves, which means “for the birds,” is a nonprofit Colombian organization formed in 1998 “to protect birds and their habitats in Colombia through research, conservation action and community outreach.” Fallon also includes dismal photos of the remains of what used to be Kayford Mountain in southwestern West Virginia, and, of course, a photo of the beguiling bird itself perched on the finger of a West Virginia researcher.

Her Epilogue entitled “Help Save the Cerulean Warbler” includes a plea to buy shade grown coffee because the forest canopy above the coffee shrubs provides a winter home for cerulean warblers and many other migratory and resident songbirds. She also asks readers to speak out against mountaintop removal coal mining which Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. calls “the worst example of what human beings can do to their environment when they behave irresponsibly.”

The End of CountryHere in Pennsylvania many folks feel the same way about Marcellus shale gas drilling. That brings me to my second book The End of Country: Dispatches from the Frack Zone by Seamus McGraw, a 51-year-old journalist whose mother contacts him and his sister about whether or not she should sell gas-drilling rights on her property near Dimock, Pennsylvania in Ellsworth Hill.

McGraw sets out to discover all he can about the natural gas rush in the commonwealth. As he said in a later interview, “the risks are real and profound and cannot be minimized,” but he also thinks that there are real benefits to those who strike it rich and to our greater society looking for a clean energy future.

Unfortunately, the extraction of natural gas is neither clean nor quiet as neighbors discover. And in Dimock, at least, some wells are polluted with methane due to improper drilling by one company. But, on the other hand, at least one person, Ken Ely, strikes it rich.

McGraw has written a book that satisfies neither the gas industry nor the conservationists opposed to gas drilling. Mostly, it is about how the drilling affects individual lives, namely Ken Ely and his neighbor Victoria Switzer. Ely sells off his gas rights, figuring he’ll never see another penny. To his amazement, the Ely well produces so much natural gas that he is a millionaire overnight. And that’s only the beginning.

Perhaps Tom Brokaw best summed up the book when he wrote, “The End of Country is an elegantly written and unsettling account of what can happen when big energy companies come calling in rural America. This cautionary tale should be required reading for all those tempted by the calling cards of easy money and precarious peace of mind. The result too often is bitter feuds, broken dreams, a shattered landscape.” I can testify from friends living in fracking land that it does mean “the end of country” and all that might imply.

But, needing the money and assured by the gas company that the risks are minimal, like many of her rural neighbors, McGraw’s mother signs over her rights for $2500 an acre, far more than many of her neighbors received who took offers as low as $25.00 an acre earlier.

And Ken Ely? You’ll have to read the shocking (to me) ending to find out.

Among the AncientsAmong the Ancients: Adventures in the Eastern Old-Growth Forests by Joan Maloof is a book I wish I had written. Imagine visiting old-growth forests from Alabama to Maine and New Jersey to Michigan — twenty-six forests in all — in each state east of the Mississippi River. Actually, I was surprised at how many we have visited — the Sipsey Wilderness in Alabama’s William B. Bankhead National Forest, the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest in North Carolina, West Virginia’s Cathedral State Park, Michigan’s Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park, and Pennsylvania’s Cook Forest State Park.

Some are more impressive than others. Maloof is especially disappointed by Mississippi’s Bienville Pines Scenic Area in the Bienville National Forest, “a forest gone missing,” she calls it after a fruitless search for what was described on the Internet as a scenic area of 180 acres containing “the largest known block of old growth pine timber in Mississippi.” The advertised trail is gone and no local person knows anything about it. When she finds it she sees that it has been logged, a ‘mechanical reduction’ to lower the risk of fire near a populated area that is “standard forestry practice.” Mississippi does not look good in Maloof’s account and neither does the National Forest Service or forestry practices in general.

But Maloof has a list she calls “Other Forests of Interest” at the back of her book, and the alternate for Mississippi — Sky Lake Wildlife Management Area–is an excellent remnant of old-growth forest according to our son Mark who has lived in Mississippi for several years and just finished writing a book on the natural places of the delta area of the state. Sky Lake WMA, in the Mississippi Delta, has a board walk through old-growth bald cypress forest and is heavily promoted and visited by local people proud of it, unlike the citizens near Bienville Pines Scenic Area who are either unaware or scared of the place. Incidentally, Maloof’s other choice in Pennsylvania is Snyder-Middleswarth Natural Area.

Along with a map, travel directions, and a photo, each chapter also has fascinating natural and human history material, for instance, on wildflowers and beetles, butterflies and crabwood, bluebead lily, Lucy Braun, nesting hawks, the Bealls, Henry Ford, tulip poplar trees, Bob Leverett, and, in Pennsylvania, the family Cook. People, she stresses, have saved these forests. Many have been private landowners and others, such as Lucy Braun and Bob Leverett, have studied and promoted old-growth.

She concludes by naming her top four old-growth forests — the Porcupine Mountains, the Sipsey Wilderness, Congaree National Park in South Carolina, and our own Cook Forest. “These are the places I keep urging others to visit so they, too, will see and understand what our land aspires to be, and what it can perhaps be again in more places, given enough time.” Maloof, a professor biology and environmental studies, is well-qualified to write such an eloquent, opinionated, and convincing book about the worth and beauty of old-growth forests.

The Forest UnseenAt last, we come to the ideal book for the nature nerd on your list: The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature by David George Haskell. He too, is a biology professor who chooses to sit for hours at a time observing one square meter of old-growth Tennessee forest on the Cumberland Plateau. He calls it his “mandala” which he explains is “a re-creation of the path of life, the cosmos, and the enlightenment of Buddha. The whole universe is seen through this small circle of sand,” a mandala he saw that was created with sand by two Tibetan monks on his campus. But he sits on a flat slab of sandstone on a forested slope in steep, rock-strewn terrain that kept the loggers away.

There he sits through the four seasons many times a week and covers a vast number of subjects in great detail such as how deer digest their food, the lives of Plethodon lungless salamanders, the biology of ticks, the reproduction or rattlesnake ferns, medicine from nature, sharp-shinned hawk, in summary, something for everyone who has an interest in some aspect of the eastern forest.

His account can be poetic, i.e. “lightning-white fungal strands crackle over black leaves,” and introspective, “the world does not center on me or my species. The causal center of the natural world is a place that humans had no part in making. Life transcends us. It directs our gaze outward.”

He also makes frequent comments about conservation, some so subtle that you have to read them again to appreciate them. For instance, in a section he calls “Chainsaw” he asks, “How should we treat our forests, as a gift to be wisely and sustainably managed or as an ‘industrial process’ in which we run down nature’s capital, mining the soil, and then discarding the spent land?…Our laws and economic rules place short-term extractive gain over other values.”

Finally, maybe the most controversial point he makes as an ecologist has to do with white-tailed deer. “Most of the scientific studies of eastern North America forest ecology in the twentieth century were conducted in an abnormally unbrowsed forest…’Overbrowsing’ by deer may be returning the forest to its more usual sparse, open condition,” he writes. Haskell quotes from old letters and diaries about the great abundance of deer in the 16th and 17th centuries and mentions that Native Americans cleared and burned forests to provide food for plentiful deer.

Merry Christmas and good reading!

Marcia's library

Marcia’s library is dominated by nature books and field guides