I grew up in Eastern Pennsylvania along the Perkiomen Creek. The creek was wide and slow in parts, and in others, ran more swiftly cutting narrow valleys through farm fields and woodland. The damp cold and ash gray gloom of late winter and early spring proved irresistible to me, and it was surely one of the times I felt the greatest communion with the land. I spent many chilly weekend afternoons and evenings after school exploring the wild places and fallow fields around my home. Decades later, I read a passage in Henry Bugbee’s The Inward Morning about his own youthful excursions into the late winter wilderness. He found in cold, gray swamps of his youth a great sense of happiness in being in a vast wilderness despite the cold and the damp. Reading his essay It immediately brought me back to the fields and valleys and woodlands surrounding the Perkiomen creek.
I don’t know if happiness is the word I’d use to describe the feeling (as Bugbee does), but I understand what Bugbee was getting at. The late winter and early spring landscape provided me then–and still does today–a quiet moment for contemplation when the snow has faded but life has yet to make a bold vernal return. Inevitably though while tromping through the woods in the dusky haze one would fine a few harbingers of things to come. Even while there was still a chill in the air, the flat colors of the boggy stream bottoms would be punctuated by the fresh green of the emerging Symplocarpus foetidus, known to most as skunk cabbage. A bit later in April another sign of Spring’s arrival started to form dense colonies on woodland floors: Podophyllum peltatum, commonly known as the Mayapple. New life and the promise of summer was on the horizon. Sounds like a perfect plant to add life to the spring garden.
This woodland perennial is native to the eastern United States and hardy in zones 3 through 8. In recent decades other Podophyllum from Asia have been introduced (P. delavayi or Dysosma delavayi–Chinese Mayapple—is particularly stunning), but we grow the native species. Podophyllum likes woodland shade to part shade in cool, rich soil, and can grow up to about 12 inches tall. The American Horticultural Association notes that the native Mayapple will quickly colonize, and, they caution, can be “too aggressive.” That has not been my experience in my garden, but that may be due to the fact that my plantings are occupying relatively small shaded areas in marginal soil. The plant spreads rhizomatously and can be propagated by division in early spring at the first signs of new growth. Podophyllum received its common name due to the 2 inch fruit that turns from green to custard colored as it ripens in about mid summer. There is some debate online and in print regarding the edibility of the fruit; if eaten before ripening, the fruit of the Mayapple (which contains podophyllotoxin which is used to treat warts) can cause intestinal upset. I’ve never tried it, nor do I intend to, but I have read that they are tasty. I’ll take others’ word for it. Apparently the fruit of the Asian varieties is used in traditional medicines while the fruit of the P. peltatum was used medicinally by Native Americans. The leaves and roots are DEFINITELY poisonous. By late summer, the plant will die back and go into dormancy awaiting the next spring.
P. peltatum is hardly a big attention grabber–not terribly tall and lacking in big showy displays–this woodland stalwart disappears from the garden by mid to late summer, giving way to more ostentatious perennials. However, the Mayapple gives every gardener what he or she so desperately needs, a shot of early green. As it happens, that early green comes in the form of a cluster of lovely umbrella shaped leaves that bear a delicate white flower and yellow fruit that has been an important part of the traditional medicine of tow very old and very rich cultures. And, no doubt, there is for me a bit of sentimentality at work as well. Perhaps the Mayapple is not such a modest addition to the garden after all?