Barberry family (Berberidaceae)
Description: This native perennial plant is 11½' tall. Some plants are unbranched and produce a single leaf from a long stalk, while others produce a pair of leaves on long petioles at the apex of this stalk. The stalks are light green, glabrous, and round. The leaves are up to 1' long and across; they are orbicular, palmately lobed, cleft, and dentate along the margins. There are 5-9 lobes per leaf that are deeply divided. Like the stalks, the leaves are glabrous.
On plants with a single leaf, the petiole joins the leaf blade in the middle, creating an umbrella-like appearance; on plants with a pair of leaves, the petioles join the leaf blades toward the inner margin of each leaf. Plants with a pair of leaves produce a single nodding flower where the petioles branch from each other. This flower is about 1½" across and has 6-9 broad white petals. There are twice the number of stamens as there are petals and a single superior ovary with a mealy glob of styles at its apex. These reproductive organs are pale yellow-orange. The sepals are deciduous and drop from the flower at an early stage of its development. The blooming period occurs from mid- to late spring and lasts about 3 weeks. There is a pleasant floral scent. Each flower is replaced by an ovoid berry that is fleshy and contains several seeds. It is about 2" long and turns yellow when ripe. This berry is produced only when cross-pollination of the flower occurs. The root system is fibrous and produces long rhizomes. Mayapple often produces dense vegetative colonies that exclude other spring-flowering plants.
Cultivation: The preference is dappled 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 adapts well to new situations. It has a tendency to spread vegetatively, but this is controllable. The foliage dies down by the end of summer.
Range & Habitat: 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, and partially shaded hillside seeps.
Faunal Associations: The flowers are pollinated by bumblebees and other long-tongued bees. These insects suck nectar or collect pollen. The foliage 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 faeces of these animals.
Comments: Mayapple is a familiar woodland plant with interesting foliage. It 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 occur 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.