All across eastern North America, one of my all time favorite wildflowers is coming into bloom. Looking like some sort of strange, tropical umbrella, mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) is more easily recognizable by its overall appearance than its flowers. However, bend down and take a look under any plant with two leaves and you will be rewarded by one heck of a bloom.
At home in the family Berberidaceae, the genus Podophyllum is predominantly Asian. Mayapple is the only species within this genus found anywhere else in the world. Mayapples exhibit two forms of reproduction, rhizomatous and sexual. When you see a great big stand of mayapple in the forest, there is a good chance they are all genetically identical. The rhizomes spread out underground, throwing up new plants as they go. This method of asexual reproduction has interesting implications for how this plant reproduces sexually.
Mayapples will not self-pollinate. They need to cross with a genetically different individual for proper seed set. This can be troublesome in that mayapple flowers do not produce nectar and bees quickly become savvy to this and are less likely to visit multiple different patches of flowering mayapples consecutively. This is where neighboring flowers come into play. Research has shown that mayapples flowering around other plants species that bees love, significantly increases the chances of pollination for neighboring mayapples.
For mayapples, flowering brings with it its own set of challenges. 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. Still, enough plants make it through to flower multiple times throughout their life.
Mayapples, as the common name suggests, produce rather large fruit that turns a bright yellow when ripe. This is the only time in which consuming a piece of mayapple is safe. The plant is HIGHLY toxic. This does not seem to deter other animals though. In my experience, fruits are short lived on the plant, quickly being gobbled up by raccoons and the like. The most interesting aspect of mayapple ecology to me is that, in at least part of its range, mayapple relies on box turtles as their main seed dispersers. They seem to relish the fruit and seeds passing through the gut of the turtle are much more likely to germinate. All in all this is a familiar friend that never disappoints. If you are lucky enough to live where mayapples are native, get outside and experience a mayapple bloom for yourself. You will be very glad that you did!