The changing natural world at our doorsteps | Illustration and text by Patterson Clark
April 6, 2010
May apples open their poison parasols
In local woodlands, green umbrellas are shooting up from underground stems. The plant has several common names: May apple, umbrella plant and devil's apple. The latter is probably a reference to the plant's toxic leaves and rhizomes. The Cherokee made an extract and used it to coat
corn kernels before planting; the poison kept crows and insects away from the seeds.
Today, doctors use preparations of podophyllotoxin — which can bring cell division to a screeching halt — to treat external warts.
Handling May apples is probably a bad idea. Juices from the plant can cause severe contact dermatitis.
Some older plants send up shoots with two umbrellas connected to the main leaf stalk. At that junction, a flower appears in May. The so-called "apple" ripens in summer.
SOURCES: Inchem.org; University of Michigan; Southern Illinois University at Carbondale