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May-Apple; Podophyllum peltatum L.
Barberry Family; BERBERIDACEÆ (May-Apple Family; PODOPHYLLACEÆ)

    A perennial herb from much of the central and eastern part of North America, May-Apple is practically never grown in the Seattle area. Why do we ignore it? The plant is handsome and produces a scrumptious, edible fruit. Its other names suggest why the May-Apple is worthy of acquaintance: Raccoon Berry, Wild lemon, Ground Lemon, Hog Apple, Indian Apple, Wild Jalap, Duck's Foot, Umbrella Leaf, and most of all, the "Wild Mandrake" of America (not related to the Old World Mandrake, Mandragora officinarum L.).
    In April the stout rootstock sends up boldly distinctive umbrella-shaped leaves, roughly the size and shape of those borne by our common Bigleaf Maple. The fully grown plants stand 1-2 feet tall and the largest leaves measure more than a foot across. Nodding white flowers of rich fragrance, 1 ½ to 2 inches wide, appear in May, singly between each pair of leaves.
    May-Apple is a colony-forming denizen of open woods or moist meadows. It does not need direct sunlight, and might best be compared in cultural requirements to some of our common woodland wildflowers, such as Trilliums, Solomon's Seal and Vanilla Leaf. It is the kind of plant that may work as a superb groundcover on the north side of a house, or better yet, in a woodland garden. It is hardy, and will spread once established.
    In July the fruit can be ripe, the foliage simulaneously withering. Harvest time in the East is July through early September. When fully ripe, the egg-shaped fruit is soft, fragrant, yellowish and a real treat, suitable raw or cooked and preserved. It is advisable to not eat the seeds, as they may be poisonous, but certainly they can be used to grow additional plants. Recipes for May-Apple can be found in books about wild edible plants.
    Unlike the raw fruit, the leaves and roots are extremely potent medicines, deadly in overdoses. Herbal books detail their therapeutic value.
    An oold, well-established May-Apple planting is in the U.W. Medicinal Herb Garden, around a Paper Birch north of the grassy area with a pond and stream. However, this patch rarely ripens its fruit; many of its leaves are single and bear no flowers. Also in the garden, south of Stevens Way, northeast of the shed by the compost pile, is an additional May-Apple; and nearby is its close cousin from northern India --the Himalayan May-Apple Podophyllum hexandrum (= Podophyllum Emodi). This herb makes delicious, very colorful orange-red, edible fruit from late June through mid-July, full of many little seeds something like a pomegranate.
    Both species can occasionally be found in local nurseries and plant sales, but a surer way to acquire stock is to scout mail order catalogs that offer rare perennials and eastern U.S. wildflowers.

    (Originally published in the June 1989 Seattle Tilth newsletter, along with an illustration drawn by Annie Figliola.)

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Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert

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