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Mayapples: Woodlanders with Fabulous Foliage

By Todd Boland (Todd_BolandFebruary 21, 2009
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Certain garden ornamentals are primarily grown for their foliage, especially those suited to shade. One of the most spectacular and choice woodlanders are the mayapples. While the native North American species is not without its merit, the Asian species are the real stars. Read on to learn more about these fab (and often pricy) plants!

Gardening picture

The mayapples, or Podophyllum, comprise seven to thirteen species (depending on the source), primarily from China, with a single species found in North America (P. peltatum). In recent years taxonomists have been at odds over this genus. Some authorities still call them all Podophyllum while others reserve that genus solely for the American species; P. hexandrum is also known as Sinopodophyllum hexandrum and all the Chineses species are also known as Dysosma. For simplicity, I'll refer to them all as Podophyllums. In the wild, they grow as forest-floor wildflowers in damp, humous-rich areas under deciduous trees. In the garden, they are best used as ground-covers in shaded areas (P. peltatum) or as choice woodland flowers for shade gardens. While the Asian species demand a reasonably moist soil, the American species is slightly more tolerant to dry conditions.

As a garden ornamental, they are best appreciated for their foliage. The flowers are actually quite attractive, but are often hidden by the foliage. These develop into a relatively large tear-drop shaped berries which may be yellow (P. peltatum) or red (Asian species). Leaves are either solitary (non-flowering) or paired (flowering). They produce a lovely umbrella-like effect and among the Asian species, are often intricately patterned in maroon. Hardiness varies but that will be covered under the individual plant descriptions. As a warning, this plant is toxic but recent studies have shown them to contain anti-cancer properties.

Most North Americans are probably familiar with our mayapple, P. peltatum. Of all the Podophyllum, this one is the most, shall we say, robust (a kind way to say it's a bully!). It can spread rapidly via strong underground rhizomes, hence may be used as a ground-cover. The leaves, which arise 30 to 40 cm, are umbrella-like, 20 to 30 cm in diameter with 5 to 9 deep lobes. Mass displays of these growing in the dappled shade of deciduous trees is a common sight throughout the hardwood forests of eastern and central North America. While not native in my area, I do grow them but must admit, I am constantly removing wayward shoots that threaten to engulf other choice woodlanders in my shade garden. The solitary, cream-white flowers are nodding and located at the axis point of the paired leaves. It is the hardiest species, rated for zone 4. Native Americans did use this plant as a herbal medicine to treat a variety of mostly female complaints.

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Details of the American mayapple, P. peltatum

From the other side of the world comes the Himalayan mayapple, P. hexandrum (syn. P. emodi), a species admired primarily for its lovely mottled foliage. While some forms can be plain green, the best have striking brown to purplish mottling, especially in early spring. The solitary flowers in this species are also located at the apex of the paired leaves but are held erect, rather than nodding, hence, are more noticeable. They may be white or commonly, soft pink, adding to their attraction. Later in the season, a nodding, egg-sized, bright red berry develops. This species does not run and will remain well behaved in the garden. It is rated hardy to zone 5.

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Details of the Himalayan mapapple, P. hexandrum

The remaining species all hail from China. These species also have lovely mottled foliage whose leaves are often shaped like a starfish! Their nodding dark red flowers are commonly produced in clusters of 3 to 8 and develop into smaller red berries than those of P. hexandrum. They are also much more tender, rated for zone 7, possibly zone 6 with heavy winter mulching. All are slow growers and do not run. Not easy to propagate, they fetch high prices in those specialty nurseries that offer them. Podophyllum delavayi (syn. P. veitchii) produces a solitary or cluster of flowers from the crotch of the paired, deeply lobed leaves.

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Details of the Chinese mayapple, P. delavayi

The remaining species have flowers that are produced just below one of the paired leaves, rather than from the crotch. Podophyllum difforme, very rare and slow, has unusual angled leaves which vary from star-like, polygonal, rectangular to nearly square! Some, like ‘Kaleidoscope', ‘Starfish', ‘Sugar Daddy' and ‘Spotty Dotty', have spectacular mottled leaves. Slow to grow via traditional methods, they are grown mostly from tissue culture.

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Some varieties of P. difforme include 'Kaleidoscope' and 'Spotty Dotty'

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More P. difforme selections include 'Starfish' and 'Sugar Daddy'

Similar, but with star-like to nastursium-shaped leaves is P. pleianthum. Podophullum aurantiocaule, perhaps the rarest species in cultivation, is distinguished by its creamy-yellow flowers. The other species are more-or-less unknown and/or extremely rare in North American gardens. These include P. glaucescens, P. guangxiensis, P. hemsleyi, P. mairei, P. majoense and P. trilobus.

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Foliage details of P. pleianthum. The flowers of 'Spotty Dotty' shown on the right are typical of most of the Chinese mayapple species.

If you have a shade garden and desire ‘high end' plants, then the Chinese Podophyllum are your kind of plant! If your pocket book is not so overflowing, then the less expensive P. peltatum or P. hexandrum can provide more economical substitutes.

I have many people to thank for the sue of their pictures. Unfortunately, the Chinese species are not hardy in my zone 5b, so I have to rely on the kindness of strangers! These include: bonitin (P. delavayi, opening picture), bootandall (P. hexandrum white-flowered form), equilibrium (P. peltatum cluster), kell (P. delavayi leaf and 'Starfish'), spur ('Kaleidoscope'), strever ('Spotty Dotty' leaf and flower, P. versipelle leaf and P. delavayi flower), toxicodendron (P. peltatum leaves) and unccgardener ('Sugar Daddy')


  About Todd Boland  
Todd BolandI reside in St. John's, Newfoundland, Canada. I work as a research horticulturist at the Memorial University of Newfoundland Botanical Garden. I am one of the founding members of the Newfoundland Wildflower Society and the current chair of the Newfoundland Rock Garden Society. My garden is quite small but I pack it tight! Outdoors I grow mostly alpines, bulbs and ericaceous shrubs. Indoors, my passion is orchids. When not in the garden, I'm out bird watching, a hobby that has gotten me to some lovely parts of the world.

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Discussion about this article:
SubjectTopic StarterRepliesViewsLast Post
Mayapple marti001 3 16 Jul 1, 2010 6:03 PM
Chinese Mayapple Deerfieldcorgis 1 23 Feb 23, 2009 1:51 PM
Parasols kathy65468 3 27 Feb 22, 2009 3:34 AM
Great article! kniphofia 5 30 Feb 22, 2009 2:58 AM
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