Podophyllum peltatum. Years ago, children used to say the “green umbrellas” were out, referring to the colonies of Mayapples, sometimes vast in size, that would unfold their pairs of large leaves in spring. The flowers, which appear from the junction of the two leaves, emit a scent often described as unpleasant; John Burroughs called it “sickly sweet.” The fragrance attracts bumblebees, flies and other insects. The flowers have no nectar but do offer plenty of pollen, which bees use for food. Despite the plant’s name, the “apple” doesn’t appear until midsummer. The large, egg-shaped yellow berry is edible, and farm boys used to relish its taste, variously described as sweet to mawkish to insipid.  Captain John Smith tasted Mayapple in Virginia in 1612, describing it as “a fruit that the Inhabitants call Maracocks, which is a pleasant wholesome fruit much like a lemond.”  Every part of the Mayapple is poisonous — except the ripe fruit; until it is mature, even the berry is poisonous. This is Mayapple’s defense mechanism, protecting even the fruit until it’s at the appropriate stage of development. Then, for the sake of propagation, the poisonous quality disappears so the berry will be eaten and seeds consumed and “planted.” Many mammals, birds, and especially box turtles eat the ripe fruit; one study showed that seeds that had gone through the turtle’s digestive tract stood a much better chance of germinating than those that simply fell to the ground. American Indians put Mayapple’s poison to use. Menominees and Iroquois turned the plant into an insecticide to kill potato bugs and corn worms on their crops. Among some, it was used to commit suicide. “The root is a very effective poison which the Savages use when they cannot bear their troubles,” wrote botanist Michel Sarrazin in 1708. 

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