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updated: 4/4/2012 11:21 AM

That's not an umbrella, it's a May-apple

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  • A May-apple plant before unfurling its umbrella-like leaves in a St. Charles yard.

       A May-apple plant before unfurling its umbrella-like leaves in a St. Charles yard.
    Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

  • A cluster of May-apples stand at varying heights in a St. Charles yard. The plant is known for heralding the arrival of spring.

       A cluster of May-apples stand at varying heights in a St. Charles yard. The plant is known for heralding the arrival of spring.
    Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

  • Three-year-old Sam Shaw of St. Charles is all smiles as he watches a box turtle toddle across the floor at Hickory Knolls Discovery Center in St. Charles. In the wild, box turtles like this one assist in the spread of the May-apple plant when they eat the berries and disseminate seeds that pass through their digestive tracts.

       Three-year-old Sam Shaw of St. Charles is all smiles as he watches a box turtle toddle across the floor at Hickory Knolls Discovery Center in St. Charles. In the wild, box turtles like this one assist in the spread of the May-apple plant when they eat the berries and disseminate seeds that pass through their digestive tracts.
    Rick West | Staff Photographer, 2011

 

If you've walked in the woods this week, you might think a beach party is about to begin. There are beach umbrellas popping up all over the forest floor.

But unlike those on the sandy shoreline, these umbrellas are about 10 inches high. And, of course they're not really umbrellas; they're the leaves of a woodland plant called May-apple.

This spring wildflower is worth a close look for its unique appearance as well as its ecology. It also has an established role in medicine and in cuisine.

Known in botany-speak as Podophyllum peltatum, May-apple is the only member of its genus in North America. Its closest cousins live in East Asia. The botanical family as a whole is not a large one and its members are spread thinly across the northern hemisphere.

In northern Illinois, the buds of the May-apple plant usually make their debut on the first warm days in April. This year, with crazy summer temperatures in mid-March, the button-shaped buds appeared extraordinarily early. Many wildflower enthusiasts noted that the leaf stalks shot up in record time, and the leaves seemed to unfurl before their eyes.

Where there's one May-apple umbrella leaf, there are many. Clusters of May-apples grow together in the dappled sunlight of the spring woods.

What appear to be many plants, however, is in fact a clonal colony of one plant connected by rhizomes, or underground stems.

Some leaf stalks are single and bear one broad leaf. These single stalks are flowerless. Other stalks are forked, with two leaves at the end of each fork. If you see such a double stalk, gently part the leaves and look underneath. There you'll find a lovely white flower hidden in the shade of its umbrella as if bashful of its own beauty.

The many-petalled flower is pollinated by insects, but it bears no nectar. Bumblebees and other long-tongued bees visit these flowers but receive little reward for their sweet tooth -- or tongue, as the case may be. Without nectar to attract and encourage pollinators, reproductive success is limited, and the species relies on clonal spreading to advance across the forest floor.

If pollinated, the May-apple flower ripens into a greenish-yellow berry, usually in May -- hence, the common name "May-apple." There are numerous seeds in each pulpy berry. Box turtles are fond of May-apples and chow down on them whenever possible.

Lumbering across the woods, turtles disseminate seeds that pass through their digestive tracts. Research has shown that germination rates of May-apple seeds that make the trip through a turtle are higher than those not digested by these reptiles.

The fruit is edible for humans, too, and is considered a delicacy by many. The ripe berries can be eaten raw or used for making jams and preserves. May-apple berries are also mixed into lemonade.

Too much of a good thing, however, can make you sick. The fruit can be consumed in moderation because it contains the same potent chemicals that make the roots and leaves poisonous. The latter should not be ingested.

As is often the case in nature's pharmacy, some chemicals that are dangerous in high doses may be medicinal in lower doses. May-apple is a prime example of this helpful-harmful dialectic. In proper doses, and with careful application, May-apple is reputedly an effective medicine for a host of ills.

According to an ethnobotanical publication of Southern Illinois University, "Many (Native American) tribes consume or drink brew from the powder as a laxative or to treat intestinal worms. Penobscot Indians used mayapple in poultice form for external use of wart tumors on the skin. ... Cherokee Indians used the plant for an anti-rheumatic, cathartic, dermatologic aid, ear medicine, insecticide, and laxative. Other Cherokee used the root as a purgative, vermifuge, (and) for the treatment of warts."

The latter use is common today, with modern dermatologic applications of May-apple root resin called podophyllin.

But the coolest thing of all is May-apple's proclamation of spring. When its umbrellas unfurl, May-apple insures us that spring has truly arrived. Whether it comes in March or April or May, that's always good news.

• Valerie Blaine is a naturalist with the Forest Preserve District of Kane County. You may reach her at blainevalerie@kaneforest.com.

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