The mayapple is a plant with a secret, and children love secrets. A native perennial that grows in moist, rich soil, the mayapple is found in woods, thickets, and pastures. If you plant mayapples in your yard, give them some space, as they will spread out and, over time, produce large patches. Mayapples appear before the trees leaf out in spring. When the plant first appears out of the ground it looks like a closed umbrella; when the leaves open and extend, the plant looks like an open umbrella. As you may have guessed, this plant is sometimes called the umbrella plant.
A first-year plant has only one leaf and will not bloom. In the second year, the plant will grow two stems, with a leaf on each; at the junction of the two stems, a bud will develop. This bud will grow to be a white flower beneath the leaves of the plant. This is the mayapple’s secret. The flowers can only be seen by those who possess the knowledge that the flower is there. To get a good look, one must get down on the ground and look beneath the leaves. My children love to show visitors these shy, little flowers. They exclaim with pride, “Want to see something cool!” Then they lift up the leaves and reveal the secret. Let your children in on the secret and then pass it on.
The berry that develops after the flower dies away is the “apple,” and can be eaten. All other parts of the plant—roots, stems, and leaves—are poisonous.
Native Americans used portions of the root in traditional medicines. Modern medicine has found that making an extract from specific dried parts of the plant is effective in blocking cell division, therefore it is a good base for anti-cancer drugs.