As we were winding up a nature walk at DeKorte Park a few weeks back a very nice woman stopped to ask me, “What are those plants that look like little green umbrellas growing alongside the building?” “You mean the turtle umbrellas?” I asked with a smile. While they may not actually be turtle umbrellas they are a great native perennial that, by the way, really are an important food source to turtles.
Blanketing the forest floor in places like Losen Slote Creek in Little Ferry and even in shaded areas of DeKorte park, Mayapples (Podophyllum peltatum) are an early woodland wildflower that stands about a foot tall with palmately lobed umbrella-like leaves that typically colonize to cover large parts of the forest floor.
If you are lucky and your timing is right and you happen to peak under the umbrella like leaves you might get a glimpse of the large, lovely white flower hiding under the shady little parasols. The flowers, with their musky scent, lack nectar, but offer our native bees an abundant pollen prize when there are not many other flowers available.
The mature fruits of the mayapple are eaten by Eastern box turtles, which may be the main distributor of the seeds. They are also eaten by such mammals as opossums, raccoons , squirrels and skunks. Recently I read that birds like Grackles may also like to dine on the little fruits that resemble a small, lemon-colored, egg-shaped fruit that are about one-and-a-half to two inches long. And if you are in bear country, they don’t mind munching a Mayapple now and then either .
Now for a warning: Mayapple is both poisonous and edible. Yes, you heard correctly. All parts of the plants are very toxic except the fruit but ONLY WHEN RIPE. Folks that have tried say it tastes like ripe melon and they say it makes a good jam (personally I don’t think I will be taking any chances). So while mayapple might be a good addition to your backyard woodland garden you might think twice if you have children or pets that might decide to sample the backyard cuisine!
Mayapple has a long history of being used as a medicinal plant. Roots of the mayapple were used by Native Americans and early settlers as a “liver cleanser” and worm expellant. Roots were also used to treat jaundice, constipation, hepatitis and fevers. Today it has been used for treatment of warts as well as cancer.
If you decide to introduce mayapple to you backyard, it prefers dappled sunlight to light shade, moist to slightly dry conditions, and a rich loamy soil with abundant organic matter.
Every native plant plays an important role in the biodiversity of the forest. Preserving and protecting them is just as important to the health of our environment as the Eagle or the Falcon .