Podophyllum, from pous, foot, and phyllon, leaf, probably referring to the stout stems; duck-foot leaf is the probable meaning.
Perennial. Growing in beds and patches in open woods and fields. Nova Scotia to Ontario and Minnesota, southward to Florida, Louisiana, and Texas. Abundant in northern Ohio. May.
Thick, horizontal, poisonous.
Erect, twelve to eighteen inches high, bearing one or two leaves; one-leaved stems are barren; rising from the ground like a folded umbrella; two-leaved stems bear a single flower.
Basal leaves centrally peltate, from four to ten inches across, long-petioled, five to seven-lobed; lobes oblong, rather wedge-shaped, two-cleft, and dentate at apex.
Saucer-shaped, cream-white, nodding, borne in the fork between the two leaves, one and a half to two inches across.
Sepals six, falling as the flower opens.
Petals six to nine, cream-white, concave, obo-vate.
Twelve to eighteen; anthers linear, opening lengthwise.
One; ovary ovoid; stigma large, thick, sessile.
Large, fleshy berry, one to two inches long, yellowish, egg-shaped, many-seeded.
Fertilized by bumblebees.
Our May-Apple is not the Mandrake of the ancient world. It bears the same name, but it is not the same thing. The ancient Mandrake, if tradition and folklore be true, was a distinctly unpleasant plant, able to blast its disturber with madness. It belonged to the family of the Deadly Nightshade and is said to have been indigenous in Palestine, Syria, and Greece. Shakespeare thus refers to it:
"Would curses kill as doth the Mandrake's groan, I would invent as bitter-searching terms, As curst, as harsh, and horrible to hear."
- "Second Henry VI."
"And shrieks, like Mandrakes torn out of the earth, That living mortals, hearing them, run mad."
- "Romeo and Juliet."
Our Mandrake, however, is altogether quiet and harmless; it grows in open places where there is sun, yet not too much; prefers meadows and pastures bordering woodlands. The plants coming up in the spring suggest little umbrellas, each wrapped in an enfolding case. Later the case slips off and the leaves open and spread. In every colony are two kinds of plants - the single-leaved and the two-leaved. The single-leaved are sterile, the two-leaved are the ones that bear the blossoms. The blossom appears at the fork of the stem, solitary, nodding, waxen, and is carefully protected against direct sunlight by the two sheltering leaves; indeed, one must look for it to find it. This blossom is often two inches across, though usually an inch and a half; the green sepals fall as the petals expand; the white rounded petals are usually six, three outside and three within. The stamens are
Podophyllum pellatum yellow; there is an abundance of pollen but no nectar. The seed-vessel at the centre is large, crowned with a ruffled stigma, and in time develops into the wild fruit known as the May-Apple eaten by children. Though the May-Apple is edible, the Mandrake root is poisonous, and from it is obtained the drug known in materia medica as podophyllum.
When any plant occurs naturally in beds it is always of interest to inquire why. The chances are that there is some agency at work more efficient than the ordinary individual possesses. In the Mandrake's case it comes out that each plant has a running underground stem, straight and brown, throwing out at intervals of a few inches rosettes of stout white roots from which spring the leaf-bearing stems. These beds in open fields are curiously circular and their limits strictly defined. This is so marked a characteristic that a mandrake-bed can be recognized almost as far as it can be seen. In the open woods this law seems not to hold, though everywhere the plant is gregarious.