Random Plant: Mayapple

Mayapples (Podophyllum peltatum, Berberidaceae) are common throughout forests in eastern North America.  Here in southeast Michigan, they first emerge from the leaf litter in mid-April:

Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum, Berberidaceae) emerging from leaf litter. Photographed 04/18/2009 near Blissfield Michigan.

Within two or three weeks, they reach their maximum height of about 16-24″.  In the early spring the canopy trees haven’t yet developed leaves, and mayapples take advantage of the abundant sunshine.  They usually grow in dense stands, blanketing the forest floor with their characteristic umbrella shapes:

Mayapples photographed 05/09/2009 near Blissfield Michigan.

By mid-May the plants are in bloom:

Mayapple flower, photographed 05/09/2009 near Blissfield Michigan.

Four to six weeks after the flowers bloom (by early July), they’ve been pollinated (typically by bumblebees, Bombus sp., Apidae) and have developed fruit:

Mayapple fruit, photographed 07/05/2009 in Rollin Township Michigan.

After the fruit matures it drops off the plant.  After overwintering the seeds can germinate, spending the next several years growing underground and spreading outward.  Eventually mature shoots emerge from the underground growth.

Although the sexual reproduction described here is utilized by mayapples, they seem to rely more on asexual reproduction.  Their dense growth can be attributed to the fact that they spread underground using rhizomes.  Colonies like the one shown above are often clones of a single plant.  Each spring the network of rhizomes grows a new crop of shoots, with the plants in each colony being genetically identical.

While the fruit is edible, it’s toxic in sufficient quantities.  The rest of the plant is also toxic and should never be ingested.  It also contains podophyllotoxin, a precursor to compounds used in treating various cancers, rheumatoid arthritis, and genital warts.

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About Jeremy Sell

Science and nature nerd.
This entry was posted in Botany, Random Plant and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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