Podophyllum peltatum (mayapple/American mandrake)*

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Painting by Vicki Malone

Artist’s Statement:

I wanted to pair the mayapple and bloodroot because of the similarity in their use, appearance and growing location.

I was very influenced by the artwork of Maud Purdy in deciding to paint these plants in gouache on black board. Maud was head botanical illustrator at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden from 1913 to 1945. Her beautiful gouaches on black board were like “little jewels” that I greatly admire.

Medicinal uses:

Roots of the mayapple were used by Native Americans and early settlers as a purgative, emetic, “liver cleanser”, and worm expellent. Roots were also used for jaundice, constipation, hepatitis, fevers and syphilis.

Mark Catesby, the 18th century artist and naturalist, described it as “an excellent Emetic”. “It flowers in March,” he wrote. “The fruit is ripe in May, which has occasioned it in Virginia to be called May-Apple.” (Catesby, Natural History, vol. 1. p. 24).

In 1752, the Virginia Gazette published a recipe for a cheap cure for “dry-gripes” (bowel pains): “Take a sufficient Quantity of May-Apple Roots, wash and boil them in clean Water, till the Quintessence of Virtue is received into the Water, then drain off the Water, and put Molasses with it; let the Proportion be one-third Part Molasses, and two-thirds Water, boil it over a gentle Fire and stir it often, then cool it and put it into a Bottle and keep for Use. Take care not to give too much; give about four Spoonfuls to a Man or a Woman, and if it does not work in four Hours, give a Spoonful or two more, and repeat it three hours after, ‘til it does work.” (Blanton, p. 216)

In “The Family Nurse,”a 1837 health care manual, a decoction of the root was described as “a sure and active cathartic” which was “much esteemed” by the Shakers. “A tea-spoonful of the powder usually operates with efficacy, without pain or inconvenience.” (Childs, pp 105 –106).

Today, extracts of podophyllum referred to as podophyllin resin are currently popular topical medications for genital warts caused by HPV virus. Much safer and more reliable alternatives are standardized pharmaceutical products containing podophyllotoxin.

Modern research has shown that podophyllotoxin from the root has anticancer properties. Podophyllotoxin from Mayapple roots has led to the development of two important antitumor drugs, etoposide and teniposide. In addition two compounds from a related species (Podohyllum emodi : Himalayan mayapple) has shown potential in treating rheumatoid arthritis (Larsen et al.). The fruits are edible but the rest of the plant is considered poisonous. (Foster and Duke pp.52-53; Peterson)