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(For the week of March 19, 2012)
by James L. Cummins
The mayapple is a herbaceous plant. It is found primarily in woodlands and partially shaded hillside seeps. This plant goes by several names including: duck’s foot, Devil’s apple, wild lemon, hog apple, love apple, Indian apple and umbrella plant.
Mayapple grows to between 1 and 2 feet in height. Some plants produce a single leaf from a long stalk. These plants do not produce a flower. Mayapple plants with two leaves produce a single nodding flower that blossoms below the leaves. The plant typically bears lobed leaves that span up to 1 foot across and 1 foot in length. There are between 5 and 9 lobes per leaf that are deeply divided. The flower that is produced is about 1.5 inches across and has between 6 and 9 white petals. The blooming period occurs from mid- to late spring and lasts about 3 weeks. Each flower is replaced by an egg-shaped berry that resembles a lime, is fleshy and contains several seeds. Two inches long and yellow when ripe, this berry is produced only when cross-pollination of the flower occurs. Mayapple often produces dense vegetative colonies that exclude other spring flowering plants.
All parts of the plant, except the fruit, are poisonous. Even the fruit, though not dangerously poisonous, can cause unpleasant indigestion. Ancient records show that American ethnic groups drank a ferment prepared from the dehydrated and crushed rhizome of mayapple as a medication to cure worms in the intestines. They also used the substance as a remedy for snakebites and as a laxative to clean the bowel.
Later, mayapple was used as an ingredient for preparing a laxative and sold over the counter as a medicine called “Carter’s Little Liver Pills.” Today, herbal practitioners use different parts of the mayapple to treat things such as warts or moles and have used them to combat some skin cancers.
According to researchers, podophyllotoxin, (the fatal ingredient of the herb), stops cell division and also possesses the ability to restrain tumor production. Of significant note, the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) has approved two drugs – etoposide and teniposide – prepared from podophllotoxin for use in the United States.
Etoposide is administered as a treatment for testicular and small-cell lung cancers and rheumatoid arthritis. Teniposide is used for conditions including brain tumors, infancy leukemia, a variety of lymphomas and other neoplastic diseases. However, the FDA has banned the use of mayapple as a laxative due to the highly toxic nature of the plant which makes dosing difficult to calculate.
Podophyllotoxin is too toxic for home use due to its caustic nature and products for oral use have been withdrawn from the market for safety. Topical preparations of podophyllotoxin require professional application and must be rinsed off after 1 to 4 hours. Because human poisoning can result from topical application, as well as ingestion, it is important that you be able to identify this plant in order to avoid contact.