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The Mysterious Mayapple and Its Poisonous Fruit

Updated: May 19, 2021

Mayapple is an easy plant to identify in the forest preserves. It grows in the spring and in a group. It gets about 1 foot tall, and the leaves are larger than your handprint.

A mayapple colony at Goodenow Grove. Photo by Suzy Lyttle

Some people say mayapple leaves look like a duck’s foot. They also look like umbrellas that would be perfect for a toad to hide under during a spring storm.

The More the Merrier

Mayapple grows in a unique way. It has an underground stem called a rhizome that sends out more shoots. When you see a bunch of mayapple plants, you are really looking at one giant plant grown from one seed.

These mega plants are called colonies. One colony can have 1,000 shoots. It takes five years for a mayapple to grow a rhizome stem to start growing a big colony.

Poison Apples

Mayapple gets its name from its white flower and the fruit it produces. The flowers bloom in May, and an apple forms after the bloom. The flower will be on plants with two leaves, but you won’t see the flower or apple from above. You must crawl under the plant to find the hidden bloom.

Every part of the mayapple plant is poisonous and would make you extremely sick if you tried to eat it. Some experienced botanists will eat the apple, but only when it is ripe. If it’s not ripe, your fate may turn into a tale like Snow White’s poison apple. Deer can smell when the apples are ripe and are usually the first ones to grab the fruit.

Magical Mandrake

Another name for the mayapple plant is the American mandrake. It is different than the more famous European mandrake, but they have similar names and are both poisonous.

The European mandrake has roots that look like tiny human beings. In medieval times, people believed the roots were real miniature humans that would let out a loud scream if you pulled it out of the ground! Does this sound familiar to any Harry Potter fans?

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