Herbs & Plants

Mayapple (American mandrake)

Botanical Name: Podophyllum peltatum
Family: Berberidaceae
Kingdom: Plantae
Division: Magnoliophyta
Class: Magnoliopsida
Order: Ranunculales
Genus: Podophyllum
Species: P. peltatum

Other names: American mandrake, umbrella plant, Devil’s apple, hog apple, Indian apple, wild lemon, may flower. in various regions it is also known as Devil’s apple, hog apple, Indian apple, umbrella plant, wild lemon, and American mandrake (though it should not be confused with true mandrake, Mandragora officinarum, an unrelated Old World plant whose roots have been used throughout history for medicines and potions).

Habitat :
Podophyllum peltatum (the mayapple) is a herbaceous perennial plant in the family Berberidaceae, native to the eastern part of North America. In woodlands in Canada and the Eastern U.S. (Eastern being East of Oklahoma).

The mayapple is a perennial plant.¬† These plants reach 6-18 inches in height and grow in patches. Each plant has a single stalk topped with one or two broad, deeply divided leaves that vaguely resemble umbrellas. The two-leaved plants normally produce a single, small white flower (usually in May, thus the name) from the fork in the stem. The flower develops into a pulpy, lemon-yellow berry which ripens in late summer and is the only part of the plant that isn’t poisonous (however, the berries should only be eaten in moderation, if at all).

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The stems grow to 30-40 cm tall, with palmately lobed leaves up to 20-30 cm diameter with 5-9 deeply cut lobes. The plant produces two growth forms. The ones with a single umbrella-like leaf do not produce any flower or fruit. The plants having a twin leaf (rarely three-leaf) structure, however, bear a single white flower 3-5 cm diameter with six (rarely up to nine) petals, between the two leaves; this matures into a yellow-greenish fruit 2-5 cm long. The plant appears in colonies in open woodlands. Individual shoots are often connected by systems of thick tubers and rhizomes.

Despite the common name mayapple , it is the flower that appears in early May, not the “apple”, which appears later during the summer. The Mayapple is also called the Devil’s apple, Hogapple, Indian apple, Umbrella plant (shape of the leaves), Wild lemon (flavor of the fruit), Wild mandrake, and American mandrake (shape of rhizomes).

According to Brian Fondren, the rhizome of the mayapple has been used for a variety of medicinal purposes, originally by Native Americans and later by other settlers.

 Cultivation: May apple is easy using to grow using seedling transplants or seed sown in fall. Prefers rich well drained soil and partial to deep shade.

Mayapple spreads from underground rhizomes to quickly form a colony that shades out smaller plants. It makes an excellent groundcover for unused areas and grows well in dappled shade. It likes light, loamy soil, shade, but not deep shade and plenty of space to spread out. You can gather seeds or rhizomes to plant or you might find a transplant in a native plant nursery. (I got mine from the local plant conservancy- they gather wild plants from construction sites and then sell them to the public.)

It’s good to keep them moist, not wet, and free of weeds until established. Once they are established, they will spread like crazy and crowd out weaker plants. Remember that it will take a few years before they starti producing fruits.


All the parts of the plant, excepting the fruit, are poisonous. This plant can kill humans within 24 hours. Even the fruit, though not dangerously poisonous, can cause unpleasant red/yellow diarrhea. The plant contains podophyllotoxin , which is used as a cytostatic and topically in the treatment of genital warts.

Medicinal Uses:
The rhizomes have a long history as a medicine among Native North American tribes. They used to gather the rhizomes in the autumn, dry them and grind them to a powder. They would eat or drink a brew of the powder as a laxative or to get rid of intestinal worms. The powder was also used as a poultice to treat warts and tumorous growths on the skin.

Currently, extracts of the plant are used in topical medications for genital warts and some skin cancers. In China and Japan, the rhizomes of P. pleianthum are used to make a compound called Hakkakuren, which is used to treat snakebites and tumors of the genitals.

American Mandrake, or May Apple, is medicinal and edible (fruit), used extensively by Native Americans. The fully ripe fruit is eaten raw, cooked or made into jams, jellies, marmalades, and pies. It is very aromatic, and has a sweet peculiar but agreeable flavor. May Apple seeds and rind are not edible, said to be poisonous. The root and plant contain valuable constituents Quercetin, Kaempferol, Podophyllin, Isorhamnetin, Gallic-acid, Berberine, Alpha-peltatin, that are being studied for their healing, anticancer and other properties. The root is used as a medicinal herb, it is antibilious, cathartic, cytostatic, hydrogogue and purgative, it should only be used by professional Herbalists. It is a most powerful and useful alternative medicine. A possible treatment for cancer is being tested as it contains podophyllin, which has an antimiotic effect (it interferes with cell division and can thus prevent the growth of cells). More Info.

The purgative action of mayapple rhizome powder is very strong, and the compounds in it are much too toxic to attempt self-medication with this plant. The FDA rates the use of this plant as “unsafe.”

The resin of May Apple, which is obtained from the root, is used in the treatment of warts. The whole plant, apart from the ripe fruit, is highly poisonous in large doses. American Mandrake herb produces nausea and vomiting, and even inflammation of the stomach and intestines, which has been known to prove fatal. In moderate doses, it is a drastic purgative with some cholagogue action. Do not use wile pregnant, nursing or trying to conceive.

May Apple Folklore
May Apple was once called the witches umbrella and thought to be employed by them as a poison, which may not be untrue! The English version of this plant has much lore told of it, being called Manroot (mandrake) believed to be alive and its screams when pulled from the ground would render a man permanently insane.
Magical Attributes:
The powdered root is used in powerful protective magic. Mayapple is extremely irritating to the eyes and Mayapple root is used in spells to keep things (like diaries, books of shadows, etc.) hidden from prying eyes. The powder can be sprinkled around the storage area or on the object itself, or around the perimeter of an area where you do not wish to be disturbed. (Remember that Mayapple is a topical poison while doing this. Take care not to let the powder sit on your skin or come in contact with your eyes.)

The dried fruit can also be added to sachets and mojo bags to similar purpose, that is to allow the bearer to work in secret, or to allow his or her actions to not be revealed too soon.

The whole root can be tucked under the mattress to ensure the fertility and verility of the couple who sleep upon it.

Kept in a high place in the home, Mayapple root is said to draw prosperity to the home and protect it from bad luck.

This herb is commonly used as a substitution in spells calling for Mandrake (Atropa mandragora)

Healing Attributes:

Mayapple is listed as “unsafe” by the FDA and most experts agree that its action is too strong for self-medication even by experienced herbalists. Every part, excepting the ripe fruit, is deadly poison and can kill an adult human within 24 hours.

It was used by Native American tribes, who dried and powdered the root, as a laxitive and to remove worms and as a topical treatment for warts and skin cancer.

Modern medicine has found compounds in the rhizome that are useful against cancer and it is used in the treatment of genital warts and skin cancers in Asia. It is also under study for use against dropsy, dispepsia, biliousness, and various liver conditions.

Symptoms of mayapple poisoning are salviation, vomiting, diarrhea, excitement, fever, headache, coma, and death.

Household Use:

The poisonous rhizome can be boiled and used to kill insects on crop plants, especially potatoes. Make sure that the resulting potion is only sprinkled on the inedible (to humans) parts of the plants, such as tomato leaves and the aerial parts of potato plants.

Culinary Use:

Only the ripe fruit or “apple” of the mayapple is edible. The fruit is ripe when it is yellow and slightly soft. Dispite its name, the flavor is more like lemon than apple. Mayapples may be eaten raw, but they are best cooked or made into jelly. They may also be juiced and mixed with sugar and water to make a beverage similar to lemonade(remove all seeds before juicing). These fruits should be eaten only in moderation and only when perfectly ripe. It has been known to cause technicolor diarrhea.

Here’s an article from Mother Earth News about cooking with Mayapples. An excellent idea for your Beltane celebrations (assuming you’ve got some ripe, if not, hold off till Midsummer)

Practical Kitchen Witchery:

If you’re using an old European spell that calls for Mandrake, you can use this plant instead. But remember, both plants are very poisonous and substitutions of dangerous plants should never be made with other dangerous plants when you are making things that are to be administerd topically or ingested. It is suggested to use the fruit instead of the root as a much safer alternative. It is slower to action and not as intense, but it is still effective.

The information presented herein is intended for educational purposes only. Individual results may vary, and before using any supplements, it is always advisable to consult with your own health care provider


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