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May-apple (Podophyllum peltatum)

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© Royal Botanical Gardens
© Royal Botanical Gardens

A Transplanted Pharmacy

Isolated colonies of May-apple can be found well east and north of its usual range. How did it get there? Probably it was deliberately transplanted by First Nations, who wanted to make sure that they had a handy source of this useful plant.

The May-apple is native to damp woodlands in southern Ontario and Quebec, as well as most of the eastern United States.

History and traditional uses
May-apple has been used by both First Nations and settlers as a laxative and tonic, to expel worms, and to treat warts and growths. It became a popular ingredient in patent medicines of the late 1800s, especially those aimed at liver problems.

Some First Nations steeped the poisonous leaves and roots in water to make a liquid insecticide for their crops. May-apple has culinary uses, too. The ripe fruit, which is not poisonous, has been eaten straight, made into jams and jellies, and used to flavour drinks.

Current findings and new possibilities
May-apple contains a number of chemical compounds which affect human health. Some block cell division, which makes them of interest as the source of possible anti-cancer drugs. One of these, podophyllotoxin, has been approved as a treatment for genital warts.

Several drugs created by modifying the podophyllotoxin molecule have now been approved for use against some kinds of cancers. Further research in this area continues.
In the Canadian garden
May-apple is increasingly popular for shade and native woodland gardens, prized for its dramatic spring emergence and the unfurling of its "umbrella" foliage. The flower and fruit are relatively modest, partially hidden beneath the leaves.

Those considering May-apple for the garden should bear in mind that the plant, except for the fully ripe fruit, is highly poisonous. As with all slow-growing native forest plants, it should not be transplanted from the wild, but obtained from a reputable nursery that grows its plants from sustainably-collected seed

Commercial growing and harvesting
May-apple for medicinal use is gathered almost entirely from the wild. Originally, a related Himalayan species of May-apple was most commonly harvested for commercial medicine production, but that species is now becoming more scarce, so that demand is increasing for North American May-apple. The plant has been declared a threatened species in parts of Quebec, so collection and transport of wild stocks are regulated there.

Researchers now seek ways to harvest May-apple in a more sustainable fashion and to grow it commercially, perhaps in combination with other forest medicinals, such as ginseng and goldenseal, that enjoy similar conditions. A promising recent discovery is that leaves, as well as roots, may be a viable source of podophyllotoxin, so that it may be possible to harvest a portion of the leaves each year, instead of rooting out the entire plant.

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