Monday, April 4, 2016

PODOPHYLLUM: MAYAPPLE MAGIC

Mayapples along Templeton Way
Yesterday, following Sunday Eucharist at the Chapel of St. Mary’s, we rode past a patch of plants with peculiar green leaves, and I asked resident botanist, Dr. Victoria Sullivan, to turn around and make an identification of the patch for me. At first, I thought we had come upon a group of plants unlikely to be growing on the Mountain – pitcher plants prevalent in south Louisiana bogs. However, when we retraced our steps and examined the colony of green plants with their umbrella-like leaves, Dr. Sullivan identified them as a colony of Mayapple, minus the flowers that appear in early May. The umbrella-like leaves protect large white flowers that bloom this month and in May.

Mayapples were once called “witches umbrellas,” and some believed that the plants were poisonous, apart from the ripe fruit that can be used as a cathartic and purgative. Actually, the fully-ripe fruit, which turns yellow in late summer and is often called wild lemon, can be made into jams and jellies, even pies. But rinds and seeds are poisonous.

When I first glimpsed the colony of Mayapple, I thought immediately of my mother who believed in fantastical beings – mystical-like gnomes, elves, and other wee folk she painted into oil renderings and who could have taken shelter under the umbrella-like Mayapples. She would have believed the stories about the English version of this plant, the Mandrake, one of which reports that the mandrakes are alive and scream when pulled from the ground. Their screams were reputed to drive people insane. Mother believed in magical beings, but she shied away from stories about dragons and mermaids, thinking that the dragon with its fish scales, giant horns, and alligator tail might frighten us. Instead, she chose to read aloud to us each night chapters from Peter Pan, Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, and a story that ultimately did frighten me – that of Snow White – and was the Mayapple the apple she consumed that caused her to fall into a sleep from which no one except a prince could rouse her?

Mother Dorothy wasn’t too far off base in her perceptions about magical creatures. After Dr. Sullivan had identified the Mayapple, I found a poem entitled “Mandrakes” by Minnie Wait that could have been written by my mother:

“Down in the shady woodland
Where fern fronds are uncurled
A host of green umbrellas
Are swiftly now unfurled.
Do they shelter fair people
From sudden pelting showers
Or are the leaves but sunshades
To shield the waxen flowers?”

Scientists are now studying and deriving anti-tumor drugs from the toxic tubers of the Mayapple. American Indians often boiled the roots from this plant and used the water to cure tummy aches. Also, the Podophyllum peltatum can be applied topically to warts. I wonder if the south Louisiana traiteurs have used it as a remedy to cure warts – a healing for which they are famous.


Whatever the uses of this magical-looking plant, my sighting provided fodder for a blog about a field of bumbershoots along the path to St. Mary’s on a sunny Sunday morning and inspired photography by Dr. Sullivan.
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