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What Time is it in Nature: Mayapple

April 19, 2014

Spring is a great time to take a close look at the plants at Prairie Ridge!  Lots of things are in bloom or making their first appearances at this time of year.  You’ll find one interesting plant growing in the forest now, the Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum).

Mayapples are small perennial plants that grow in the deciduous forests of the eastern US.  They reach up to 1 foot in height and have large umbrella-like leaves atop long, narrow stalks.  They come in two forms.  Infertile plants (those incapable of reproducing) produce only a single leaf:

Infertile Mayapple plant

… while fertile plants (those capable of reproduction) produce two leaves that branch apart about halfway up the main stalk:

Fertile Mayapple plant

The leaves of each type of Mayapple plant are slightly different.  Infertile plant leaves are deeply divided into 6-9 lobes.  Fertile plants have only 5-6 lobes.

You may find large groups of Mayapples growing together in forested areas with dappled sunlight or light shade.  They spread underground via their root system and you may find both fertile and infertile plants growing next to one another.  The fertile plants also produce seeds.  Each fertile plant produces a single large flower in mid to late spring that emerges from the branch between the leaves:

Mayapple flower bud

The flower is fertilized when bumblebees or other bees bring pollen from another flower.  After fertilization, it can grow a fruit, a pale yellow berry about 1 1/2 inches long.

Mayapples are ephemeral spring plants, so they are visible for only a few months in the spring.  Once they emerge, they grow quickly.  Their blooming period lasts for just 2-3 weeks and the fruits grow quickly as well.  By summer, the plants will have withered or disappeared entirely, lying dormant underground until the following spring when they have their next burst of activity.

Very few mammals attempt to eat Mayapples because nearly every part of the plant is toxic to them.  The fruits are moderately edible when fully ripe, but the seeds contain toxins and eating more than a few Mayapple fruits can be deadly to mammals that eat them.  The roots, leaves, and stems are toxic.  However, Eastern Box Turtles are known to eat the fruits and several insects take advantage of the flowers and leaves.  Bumblebees and other long-tongued bees will visit the flowers, sipping nectar and feeding on pollen.  Other insects are known to eat the leaves as well, including at least one species of thrips and the larvae of one species of sawfly.

You can find Mayapples along the upper section of the paved portion of the Forest Trail at Prairie Ridge.  You can’t miss the little green umbrellas growing in the shade near the trail!  On your next visit, take a close look at the Mayapples we have growing.  Can you see both fertile and infertile plants, or perhaps a flower or fruit?

What Time is it in Nature is a weekly feature highlighting the current plants, animals, and other wildlife at the Musuem’s public outdoor facility, Prairie Ridge Ecostation. Find out more about the natural happenings at Prairie Ridge at our What Time is it in Nature Archive!

(Photos by Chris Goforth)

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