These Umbrellas Are Poisonous

Little green umbrellas stand in the woods. Their stems shoot about halfway up my shin, each crowned by a circular leaf parsed into five or six hoof-like sections. In the breeze, the stems quiver and pancake-ish leaves totter, flimsy edges lifting in hello. Hello, little green umbrella friends. What are you?

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I grew up and live among plants I don’t know at all. Trees, shrubs, flowers—I love them because they’re pretty and quiet and pulsing with life. But I can’t tell you their names, if they like the sun or shade, the time of year they flourish, the intricacies of their existence. Is this due to my own ignorance or an education lacking ecology? Probably a bit of both. Regardless, I enjoy pushing beyond pretty and learning their secrets now.

The little green umbrellas are the mayapple, Podophyllum peltatum, known as mandrake or duck’s foot or ground lemon or hog apple. It lives in the woods of the eastern half of the United States and Canada, emerging with spring in the damp partial shade offered by deciduous trees. As a “herbaceous perennial,” its aboveground parts die off completely after the growing season. But a part of the plant survives underground, allowing mayapples to sprout from this surviving piece come next spring.

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Mayapples grow in colonies. Though each umbrella appears to be separate, the clusters are actually one individual, connected by underground horizontal stems known as rhizomes.

Some of the green umbrellas have a single aboveground stem, one line from ground to leaf. In the same cluster, other plants have a forked stem. Their single shafts split into two, like the letter Y, a pancake-ish leaf capping both arms. In May, a miraculous flower sprouts from the point where the two arms of the stem diverge, like a third appendage. The flower bows its head to the forest floor, white petals bordering a center of yellow tentacles. The flower grows into small lemon-shaped fruit that ripens from lime green to wrinkly yellow in early summer. Only double-stemmed mayapples furnish the flower and fruit. Single-stemmed mayapples appear bare and miserly in comparison.

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When, on a walk in West Virginia, I first noticed the flower hidden under the double canopy of a forked mayapple, leg-stopping awe impeded my forward progress. What a beautiful, wild surprise from a plant no higher than my knees. With adoration came a question: Why are there two forms of this plant? I first guessed that this was a case of sexual dimorphism, when males and females of the same species differ in appearance. But I was wrong. It’s sexual-ability related, not sex related. The forked, flowering plants are able to reproduce. The single stem, single leaf plants are sterile.

Though some may be sterile, all mayapples are potent. And by potent I mean that almost every part of them is really very poisonous. Only its ripened fruit is non-toxic, made into jams and jellies and punch. The poisonous compound in mayapples is podophyllotoxin. I’m not exactly sure what things happen when you ingest podophyllotoxin, except that you vomit a lot and can die. I read that Native Americans used to ingest mayapple to commit suicide. People use podophyllotoxin to treat skin warts and as the starting material in the making of several anti-cancer drugs.

So maybe the little green umbrellas are friends to admire only from afar.

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