May Apples: 13 Things to Know

A mayapple is a perennial plant that is related to the apple and can be found in North America. It has interesting flowers, leaves, fruit, and roots. You might have seen it blooming but not known what it was! Learn more about this fascinating plant with 13 facts you need to know.

What is a May Apple?

Podophyllum Peltatum, also known as may apple, is a common tree in many areas of the eastern United States up through the southeastern part of Canada. It’s also known as ground lemon or American mandrake, though it’s technically not directly related to other plants that have names that follow this same pattern.

While it does have an apple in the common name, it’s also not part of the Malus Domestica family, which is where most modern domesticated apple trees can be found.

What Were They Used For?

Historically, may apples were used to make a certain kind of topical medications that could help deal with parasites. It was also used to induce vomiting and act as a sort of laxative, though care had to be taken because these preparations can be quite toxic.

According to the World Health Organization, one topical preparation made from chemicals found in these trees is still on the list of the most essential medicines even today. There’s at least some evidence that these traditional concoctions could help to fight a few specific types of cancer.

Do May Apples Have Fruit?

Some may apple trees will produce fruit while others produce no flowers and therefore nothing else besides their leaves. Those that produce fruit will usually start quite green and won’t be edible until it’s reached a dull yellow color.

Can You Eat May Apples?

Once May apple fruit has ripened and turned yellow, it’s usually safe to eat in small amounts, though you might find that even this is toxic if you go overboard. The green unripened fruit shouldn’t be eaten, because it’s normally poisonous.

The fruit contains a compound called podophyllotoxin, which is poisonous if you consume it. That being said, it’s useful as a topical preparation so the plant still does have some medicinal properties.

How Do You Ripen May Apples?

Usually, they’ll ripen by themselves if they’re left on the tree for a long enough period of time. They could be left in the sun to ripen as any other fruit as well, but there’s a high probability that any fruit from the said tree still contains some toxin, and therefore care should be exercised when eating them.

How Long Do May Apples Last?

Normally, the actual may apple fruit will only survive for a week or a few weeks at most. Eventually, other organisms like insects will start to consume it and it’ll break down over time.

The trees, however, can survive for many years just like any other deciduous tree.

Why Are they Called May Apples?

Flowering May apple trees will first start to produce their blossoms in the last week or two of May in most climates, and these turn to fruit over time. This gave them the name, though they usually don’t grow full fruits this early.

Since they’ve expanded beyond their original growing area, May apple trees will also grow fruits earlier in the year in some areas. Changing weather conditions have also had something to do with this since they’ve caused growing seasons to move backward in the year to at least some degree.

What Does May-apple Root Look Like?

Naturally, May apple roots are a dark brown color and quite moist. They look a lot like ginger, and if you slice them they’ll have a cream-colored fleshy inside as well, which makes them even more ginger-like.

Once they’re dried, May apple roots will look a much darker brown and have a sort of flaky feeling that’s, once more, rather like that of finished ginger root. That being said, you don’t want to mistake this root at all because it’s potentially quite toxic.

What Does May Apple Taste Like?

Unlike most fruit, May apples have a different flavor to different people. Most, however, do agree that they have a bitter citrus-like taste that at least somewhat resembles those of lemons.

Quite a few individuals who’ve tasted them complain that they actually taste more tart than even limes, which makes them at least somewhat unappealing.

Do Morels Grow by May Apples?

When May apple trees produce a sufficient number of leaves, they produce more than enough shade for morels and other prized culinary fungi to grow. That makes them a key area to search for them.

If you’re a morel hunter, then you’ll want to learn the unique leaf pattern of May apples so you can find nearby morels. Be careful, however, because those that grow in old apple orchards may have been contaminated with arsenic that was once sprayed as part of a misguided attempt at fertilizing them.

Do May Apples Die Back?

Just like any other plant of its size, May apples can die back if their roots get waterlogged or they suddenly don’t get enough water. Those who are cultivating them as ornamental trees will want to either provide more or less water if they suddenly notice that this starts to happen.

You’ll also want to check the amount of fertilizer you’re using since excessive amounts can burn the roots.

What Animals Eat Mayapples?

Since May apples tend to be so toxic, most mammals will simply avoid them. However, their berries are eaten by wild box turtles in some areas as well as other cold-blooded species, especially in warmer temperate climates.

Even they tend to wait until they’re ripe, however. In some cases, mammals like raccoons and skunks will eat the ripened fruits, but they tend to limit the amount they have.

Is Mayapple Root Worth Anything?

Since it can be used to make a topical wart remover and may also work as an emetic, May apple root is prized in some circles. Since it’s relatively common, however, the price per pound varies wildly and usually never approaches a very large amount of money.