Barberry family (Berberidaceae)
Description: This herbaceous perennial plant is 1–1½' tall. Infertile plants are unbranched, producing a single leaf from a long stalk, while fertile plants produce a pair of leaves on long petioles at the apex of this stalk. The stalks are light green to pale reddish green, glabrous, and terete (circular in circumference). The leaves of infertile plants are up to 1' long and 1' across; they are orbicular in outline, fully peltate, and deeply divided in 6-9 palmate lobes. The leaves of fertile plants are similar, although they are less orbicular in outline, only marginally peltate, and they tend to have fewer lobes (typically 5-6). The leaves of both infertile and fertile plants have lobes that are obovate in shape. The outer margins of these lobes are coarsely dentate and often shallowly cleft; less typically, they are coarsely crenate, slightly undulate, or smooth (entire). The upper leaf surface is medium to dark green and glabrous. On fertile plants, the ascending petioles of the leaves are 3-6" long, light green to pale reddish green, glabrous, and terete. The petioles join the leaf blades toward the inner margins of the latter. Each fertile plant produces a single nodding flower where the 2 petioles branch from each other.
This flower is about 1½" across, consisting of 6-9 white petals, 6 light green sepals, 12-18 stamens, and a superior ovary with a dome-shaped cluster of stigmata at its apex. Both the petals and sepals are oval-obovate in shape; the latter are glabrous and early-deciduous. The ovary is ovoid in shape and light green to pale yellow. The stamens have white filaments and yellow anthers. The pedicel of the flower is about 1½" long, light green to yellowish green, and glabrous. The blooming period occurs from mid- to late spring, lasting about 2-3 weeks. Individual flowers are short-lived; they have a pleasant fragrance. Each flower is replaced by an ovoid berry that is fleshy and contains several seeds. At maturity, this berry is about 1½" long and pale yellow. A berry is produced only when cross-pollination of the flower occurs. The root system is long-rhizomatous and fibrous. Mayapple often produces dense colonial colonies that exclude other spring-flowering plants.
Cultivation: The preference is dappled sunlight to light shade, moist to slightly dry conditions, and a rich loamy soil with abundant organic matter. This plant is easy to start from rhizomes and it will readily adapt to garden areas near deciduous trees. It is a strong colonizer and may spread aggressively in some situations. Young foliage is vulnerable to late-frost damage. The mature foliage dies down by the end of summer.
Range & Habitat: The native Mayapple is a common plant that occurs in every county of Illinois (see Distribution Map). It is found primarily in mesic deciduous woodlands, open woodlands, small woodland openings, savannas, and edges of hillside seeps in wooded areas. Mayapple occurs in high quality old-growth woodlands and also open woodlands that have some history of disturbance.
Faunal Associations: The flowers are cross-pollinated by bumblebees and other long-tongued bees. These insects collect pollen and possibly suck nectar. The larvae of a sawfly, Aglaostigma quattuordecimpunctatum, feed on the leaves of Mayapple (Smith, 2006). Adults of a thrips, Ctenothrips bridwelli, have been found on the foliage (Stannard, 1968). The foliage of Mayapple is avoided by mammalian herbivores because of its poisonous qualities and bitter taste. The seeds and rhizomes are also poisonous. The berries are edible if they are fully ripe; they are eaten by box turtles and possibly by such mammals as opossums, raccoons, and skunks. The seeds are distributed to new locations in the feces of these animals.
Photographic Location: A mesic deciduous woodland at Busey Woods in Urbana, Illinois.
Comments: Mayapple is a familiar woodland plant with interesting foliage. The flowers are large and attractive, but they are sparingly produced and mostly hidden by the large leaves. Mayapple develops very quickly during the warmer days of spring. There is no other plant within the state that resembles it; the only other species in this genus occurs in Asia. People can eat the ripe berries in limited amounts, even though they may be mildly toxic. The flavor is bland and resembles an overripe melon.