Mayapple Fruit and Faerie Umbrellas

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If you’ve read a few of my blogs, you know that my Mammaw features in many of them.  It’s not surprising, she’s still in my heart and my history.  Mammaw taught by telling stories – she had a real gift and I loved hearing her.  So here’s a story about the Mayapple fruit and Faerie Umbrellas…

Early one spring, she and her older sister (my great-aunt T) were in the woods.  Aunt T dared Mammaw to eat a mayapple fruit.  Mammaw, being younger, naïve, and too proud to pass on a dare, took a big bite – and promptly threw up – violently.  Oddly enough, I’ve never been tempted to repeat the experiment.

Actually, mayapple fruit can be eaten – when it’s ripe – in small amounts. I wouldn’t bother.  It’s also been used medicinally by native Americans to cause vomiting and to get rid of intestinal worms, which seems a pretty appropriate use for it.  Today, it’s used as an ingredient to treat cancer.

So What is Mayapple?

Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) is a woodlander, another of those ephemeral perennials which emerge in early spring, grow, bloom and then go dormant until next spring.  Native to the eastern U.S., it’s hardy from Zones 3 to 8.  They can be seen in nearly every woods around here, looking like shiny green umbrellas on the forest floor.

When you see a large patch of mayapples, you’re likely looking at one plant, connected underground by rhizomes.  You can carefully dig up a rhizome and plant it again elsewhere.  It will also spread by seed.  Its lovely white to pink flower is hard to see as it hides underneath those umbrella leaves.  The flower is visited by pollinators: bumblebees and long-tongued bees to name two.  The fruits are eaten by racoons, possums, squirrels, skunks and box turtles, but avoided by most other mammals – including deer.

Mayapple is also called Indian apple, wild mandrake, hog apple and racoon berry and enjoys some mystique, thanks to folk tales.  If a woman pulled up the mayapple and the complete rhizome, she would soon get pregnant, according to one tale.  Mammaw told me that faeries would stay under the leaves to keep dry when it rained.  That’s possible, I suppose, because she also said that whenever there are ferns, there are faeries – and mayapples and ferns often grow together.

It’s kind of nice to sit on the sofa when it’s a cool and rainy day like today and imagine faeries huddled together under the mayapple leaves.  If they are, I’m sure they want it to stop raining as much as I do.

Stay Green, Good Friends.

Meet Dona Bergman

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