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Nature Nearby: Spring rains open the witches’ umbrellas

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Posted on: May 19, 2015
FRED SEITZ
FRED SEITZ

The recent mini-deluges have helped “spring up” one of the woodland’s familiar leafy faces, the mayapple, also known as the witches’ umbrella, the American mandrake, or the hog apple. The plant has umbrella like leaves and may grow up to two feet tall. It favors moist soil and grows in patches due to the common rhizome, or root structure, it shares with other mayapple plants.

This native plant of the eastern United States and Canada will produce a single white or yellow flower slightly below the umbrella of leaves. In late summer, a small yellow fruit appears, but the plant’s ‘apple’ is too appetizing to last long. The fruit can be eaten by humans in small quantities (large amounts may produce digestive discomfort). The odds of finding more than one or two fruits are quite low, as rodents, raccoons and other critters will undoubtedly get there first.

All other parts of the plant can be toxic to humans with effects ranging from severe digestive catharsis to fatality. However, Native Americans and herbalists have used the plant as medicine and to treat warts. Allegedly, the plant is used in modern wicca for spell casting.

The American mandrake is in the barberry family, but the European and Asian mandrake is in the nightshade family. Much of the lore associated with the foreign plant has been ascribed to the American mandrake, including the belief that digging up the root yields a scream which drives the digging person insane. While the uses and effects of the plant are quite diverse, it is being studied by the University of Mississippi for its possible use as an anticancer drug. Indeed, the foreign relative of the mayapple has been harvested nearly to extinction in Russia and Europe for just that purpose.

Regardless of your taste for and beliefs about the plant, its spring beauty can be enjoyed by even the most casual walker in our nearby woods. Hopefully, our American mayapple is spared the extinction threat of its European cousin.

Just look under this tiny umbrella to see the lovely flower and its fruit emerge, and beware of any sorcerer harvesting its dark power.

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