Q. What kind of plant is may-apple, and how do you care for it?
May-apple, Podophyllum peltatum, is a native of eastern North America, one of ten species. Others are indigenous from the Himalayas to eastern Asia. The may-apple family, Podophyllaceae, is a group considered to be somewhat intermediate between two families, barberry (Berberidaceae) and the buttercup (Ranunculaceae). The name, from the Greek podos, a foot, and phyllon, a leaf, perhaps refers to the stout stalks of the basal leaves.
P. peltatum has been called mandrake, but that name more properly belongs to Mandragora of Europe. May-apple is native to moist, open woods and moist soils at roadsides and other places from Quebec to Minnesota, Florida, and Texas. Its rhizomes extend horizontally for several feet underground and send out two kinds of stems--sterile without blooms, and flowering. Each flowerless stem is 1-1½ feet high, terminates in a single umbrella-like leaf up to 1 foot across with seven to nine wedge-shaped, toothed lobes. The flowering stems each bear two half-round leaves at their tops similarly toothed and lobed, with the number of lobes ranging from five to seven.
From the crotch formed by the leaf stems arises a stalked, nodding, fragrant flower 1½-2 inches across, cup-shaped, with six to nine white petals delicately traced with transparent veins. The fruit can grow about 2 inches long and is a lemon yellow color when ripe. It is a favorite food of box turtles, who move on and excrete may-apple seeds as they go.
May-apple grows best as an undercover plant in woodlands and along shady paths and in other places where filtered sunlight seeps through the overhead canopy. Its generous sweeps and drifts of growth in large areas make a dramatic impression. May-apple prefers deep, dampish to wet soil that contains compost and leaf mold. You can plant may-apple in very early spring or early fall. Propagation is best done by dividing plants, from underground rhizomes, or from seed. Seeds are sown as soon as they are ripe in constantly moist sandy peaty soil in a cold frame or protected bed outdoors.
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- Courtesy of NYBG Plant Information Service