The eve of May Day in northern Europe is Walpurgisnacht, a sort of spring cleaning for witches. The witchlets whisk out the coven room and go flitting through the spring night to test drive new brooms and get maintenance done on winter-stored brooms. This Hexenritt or witches’ ride takes place on mountaintops. One fave peak is the Brocken in the Harz Mountains of central Germany. So, whether we are wishing you Happy Walpurgisnacht or Happy May Day, we choose to celebrate May with a spring wildflower familiar to Canadians, a leafy denizen of our eastern woodlands, the mayapple.
I just weekended in the Haliburton Highlands of Central Ontario. The mayapples are not up yet but, greeting the wanderer through awakening woods, was Clintonia whose tiny white flowers dappled the oak-leaf rubble of the forest floor. Dog-Tooth Violets were reflexing their slender yellow petals. The little charmer is also known as Trout Lily because of the mottling of its leaves, resembling the speckled flank of a brook trout. I keep a speckled trout flank nailed to the barn door in the country, strictly for purposes of comparison and lest even one metaphor go awry. Maroon-hued trilliums abounded on moist uplands and were just about to open and present their three-petalled stars to the spring sunshine. These trillums tend to open with a modest reddish blush and then turn dazzling white as they beckon their pollinators.
Genus Name of the Mayapple: Podophyllum, Botanical Latin, shortened from the original name in old botany, Anapodophyllum or “duckfoot leaf” = anas Greek, duck + pous, podos Greek, foot + phyllon Greek, leaf.
The basal leaf does have a long, foot-like stem. The shape of the leaf could be said to resemble a duck’s webbed foot.
Barbarians, Berbers & Barberry
Family: Berberidaceae, the barberry family, perennial herbs and shrubs in about twelve genera, mostly of the northern temperate region < berberis Old French, one of the barberries < barbaris Latin, one of the shrubs < ultimately Barbaroi Greek, literally ‘stammerers,’ but any foreigner who could not speak Greek was a barbaros and was thus uttering nonsense syllables like ‘bar-bar.’
This notion is of ancient Indo-European provenance. Consider barbaras Sanskrit for ‘stammering.’ A barberry-like shrub must have sometime come from North Africa or the Middle East. Note that Arabic borrowed the Greek term too, as al-Barbar, originally any people the Moors encountered who could not speak Arabic, notably the Berber people, whose name reflects this Arab prejudice. The Berber language is not Arabic. In English, of course, we still refer to barbarians.
PELTA & the Canadian Species
Mayapple possesses the pleasingly plosive appellation of Podophyllum peltatum. Peltatus is classical military Latin for ‘armed with a pelta.’ The pelta was the sturdy little shield, shaped like a half moon, carried by the Roman infantry whose armourers borrowed it from the pelte shield of the ancient Thracians. Each of the mayapple’s two large leaves vaguely resemble such a shield. A pelta was made of wood or wicker-work, covered with skin or leather and the soldier who carried such a shield was a peltast. Peltasts were a kind of light infantry employed by the ancient Greeks. As well as the pelte, these men wore quilted tunics and leather leggings. Usually their arms also included long spears and swords.
Common Name Misnomer
Like many common names of plants, mayapple is a slight misnomer, since the yellow fruit does not appear until later in the summer. But, when it did ripen enticingly, the mayapple sent pioneers and even visiting explorers into dizzy dithyrambs of praise. Here is W. Ross King, author of The Sportsman and Naturalist in Canada (1866): “a delicious and refreshing wild fruit...about the size of a bantam’s egg...presents a mass of juicy pulp and seeds, not unlike pineapple in flavour.” Steady on, old man. Ripe fruit can be done up as preserves and added to jams and jellies too. Many moderns who have tasted it say mayapple berries are bland, acidic, and too pulpy.
Uses & Cautions
The leaves and roots are poisonous. The American Food & Drug Administration lists this plant as “unsafe to use.” But can one find its extracts for sale in some Canadian “health” stores? You bet! Just glug those toxins down your gullet, suckers!
Worth repeating: The ovoid yellow fruit of the mayapple is edible only when it is ripe. Before it ripens, the fruit is dangerous to consume. Mayapple plants adorn many poison lists and are listed in hospital emergency room poison therapy manuals. That ought to be proof sufficient, and yet every year children and healthfood nuts are admitted to medical care presenting with symptoms of mayapple poisoning.
Clinical Uses of Mayapple
While there are many dangerous folk remedies connected with extracts of mayapple, like its unadvised use as a purgative, pharmaceutical investigation has led to the clinical use of podophyllin, a resin from the mayapple, and podophyllotoxin and derivatives like epipodophyllotoxin. In 1977 podophyllin was the drug of choice in the treatment of venereal warts or condylomata acuminata. American medical literature reports that the Penobscot peoples of Maine treated certain cancers with an extract from the rhizome of the mayapple.
Compounds found in mayapple like alpha and beta peltatin are currently used in the treatment of certain cancers. And so the search goes on.
The white flower of the mayapple
© 2012 William Gordon Casselman
Any comments, questions, additional word lore or book orders?
Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org