Mayapples & Box Turtles
Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) is one of the most easily recognizable Spring wildflowers. It is so unique, it is the only species within this genus found naturally outside of Asia.
This wildflower has very distinctive foliage. In early to mid-April, when it first emerges from the soil, the unopened, leaves resemble a fat green umbrella ready to open. As it opens, you will be able to tell whether or not it will flower this season. Single-leafed stems will not flower, forked stems with two leaves will. You can’t miss the leaves, as they can grow each grow up to a foot across.
Look carefully under the double leaves in late April- early May, you should see the waxy flowers begin to open. The flower is quite beautiful, but easy to overlook because it is hidden under the leaves and it points toward the ground. They are fragrant, but receive mixed reviews from pleasant to putrid.
If you see a great big stand of mayapple, they are most likely genetically identical having reproduced asexually. Their rhizomes spread out underground, with new plants popping up as they grow.
For genetically different plants, they must reproduce sexually by producing fruit/seed. Mayapples will not self-pollinate. They need to cross with a genetically different individual to set seeds. There is a small problem, mayapple flowers do not produce nectar and bees are not stupid. The pollinators quickly learn about this lack of pollen and are less likely to visit multiple different patches of flowering mayapples consecutively. To get around this problem, they rely on their fruit to help spread their seed.
Pollinated flowers are followed in early summer by fleshy, ovoid to lemon-shaped fruits (a berry) containing several tan seeds. The fruit ripens to a golden color and softens later in the summer and the weight of the fruit eventually causes the senescing stalk to bend over and set the fruit on the ground.
It takes a lot of energy to produce flowers, fruits, and seeds. Research has also demonstrated that flowering and fruit production in mayapples significantly decreases the chances of flowering in the future and significantly increases the likelihood of the plants demise. It’s important that if they expend to energy to produce fruit, that it doesn’t go to waste. If the seeds fall in the parent mayapple stand, they have a much lower germination rate.
The highly prized fruit is the plant's ingenious way of ensuring the seeds are not wasted. The ripened fruit supposedly has a tropical taste, and are highly desirable by many forest creatures. Box turtles are believed to be the main distributor of mayapple seeds. They seem to relish the fruit and seeds passing through the gut of the turtle are much more likely to germinate. May apples are just the right height for these creatures.
It is very important to note, all the parts of the plant, except the fruit, contain podophyllotoxin which is highly toxic if consumed, but was used by Native Americans for a variety of medicinal purposes.
Now is a great time to head to the forests to look for Mayapples, and keep your eyes open for box turtles. These creatures are listed as an Ohio Species of Concern. These slow, land dwelling creatures are often hit by cars and illegally taken home as pets. If you find a turtle take a picture, not the turtle itself. If you see one trying to cross the road, help it cross the road by putting it directly on the side of the road it was trying to get to.
You can find out more about box turtles at http://wildlife.ohiodnr.gov/species-and-habitats/species-guide-index/reptiles/woodland-box-turtle.
Fairfield County Parks has created a great activity sheet for children about mayapples and box turtles https://www.fairfieldcountyparks.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/activity-mayapple-and-box-turtle.pdf