After twelve years, the first mayapples bloomed inside our three-acre deer exclosure. Almost as soon as we put the fence up in March 2001, mayapple leaves popped up in the lower, wet, wooded section of the exclosure. But they were single leaves, not the double leaves with a notch in the middle from which a single, six-petaled, waxy, white flower would emerge.
Last spring on our mountain the first umbrella-shaped mayapple leaves unfurled on March 30, by far the earliest date ever for this wildflower that often doesn’t flower until the second week in May. The frosts of April didn’t wilt the leaves, and on the 18th of April, I found three double-leaved mayapples in the exclosure, each bearing a large flower bud.
The exclosure isn’t the only place mayapples bloom. These clonal plants have formed large colonies beside our road, along Sapsucker Ridge Trail, and beside the Far Field Road. But the largest colony of all covers more than an acre at the Far Field thicket. One leaf even appeared in the middle of the Far Field last spring, but I doubt it will make much headway against the goldenrod and asters.
As usual the first mayapples bloomed along the Far Field Road on April 27, the earliest blooming date ever during our 40 years here, but those mayapples beside our access road didn’t flower until May 1, right in time for May Day.
While the first part of its common name refers to the month it usually flowers in, the “apple” refers to the yellow-green, egg-shaped fruit that is purported to appear in August or September after the plant has fallen down. I say purported because I’ve never actually found a fruit on any of our mayapples. Although the deer allow our mayapples to leaf and flower, they never allow them to fruit. Or maybe the culprit is the occasional eastern box turtle that finds and devours the odd fruit. Apparently, the seeds inside the fruit must go through the gut of a box turtle in order to germinate.
I had always hoped to find enough mayapples to make Euell Gibbons’s mayapple marmalade, which he describes as “ambrosia” in his delightful book on wild foods Stalking the Wild Asparagus. (He also says that “the woods are full of ripe Mayapples.”) Despite having a laxative effect on some people, many have found the taste of mayapple fruit worth the risk. Back in 1612 Captain John Smith described it as “a fruit that the Inhabitants call Maracocks, which is a pleasant wholesome fruit much like a lemond (sic).” The Huron Indians gave it to the French explorer Samuel Champlain in 1619, and he thought it tasted like a fig. Early Rhode Island settlers called it “a pleasant fruite (sic).” Gibbons claims that the flavor “is not easily described…When I eat a thoroughly ripe May apple, I am reminded of several tropical fruits, the guava, the passion fruit and the soursop, but I can’t honestly say that it tastes like any of them.”
Even its odor was debated, and Charles F. Saunders, in his book Edible and Useful Wild Plants of the United States and Canada, describes the strong scent of the ripe fruit as a composite of cantaloupe, summer apples, and fox grapes. Gibbons writes that “I love the sweet scent of the ripe fruit with its hint of mysterious muskiness.” But all of this is hearsay as far as I’m concerned.
Despite the appeal of its ripe fruit, its raw leaves and roots are poisonous. Native Americans used the plant to commit suicide and made an insecticide from it to kill corn worms. Today it is an ingredient in laxatives and is useful for the treatment of intestinal worms.
But its most important use derives from its ability to produce podophyllotoxin, which is “the starting material for the semi-synthesis of the anti-cancer drugs etoposide, teniposide and etopophus,” according to Rita M. Moraes, Hemant Lata, Ebru Bedir, Muhammad Maqbool, and Kent Cushman in their paper “The American Mayapple and its Potential for Podophyllotoxin Production.” These compounds have been used to treat lung, testicular, stomach and pancreatic cancers, and some leukemias. It’s also a precursor to a new derivative called CPH 82, which may be useful for treating rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, and even malaria.
It’s expensive for pharmaceutical companies to synthesize podophyllotoxin and originally, back in the 1970s, when its anti-cancer properties were discovered, the pharmaceutical companies used the rhizomes of our mayapple—Podophyllum peltatum—to produce podophyllotoxin. In one year they harvested more than 130 tons of American mayapple rhizomes.
Then the scientists found that P. emodi, a perennial rhizomatous herb growing in the understory of Himalayan subalpine forests, contained more podophyllotoxin than P. peltatum, so during the next three decades, they switched to the roots and rhizomes of the Himalayan species. The demand by the international market for this plant quickly turned it into an endangered species.
For this reason Moraes, Lata, Bedir, Maqbool, and Cushman used a different extractive method on the leaf blades of our mayapple to produce podophyllotoxin. Unlike ripping up the roots and rhizomes, which destroys the plants, leaf blades are a continually renewable resource. Then, too, our mayapple is common and grows in large colonies from northern Quebec and Minnesota to Florida and Texas and west to Nebraska. It also thrives under wide-ranging growing conditions from the low winter temperatures of the north to the high summer temperatures of the south.
Like many spring wildflowers, mayapples reproduce both sexually and asexually. Sexually, bumblebees and other long-tongued bees cross-pollinate the flowers from one clonal colony to another, while asexually the rhizomes continually expand in dense circular clones, usually crowding out any competing vegetation. The plants are one to one and a half feet tall and consist of sterile, immature, palmate-shaped, single leaves or two to three, palmately-lobed, reproductive leaves.
Both its genus name—Podophyllum—which means “foot leaf,” and its species name peltatum meaning “shield-shaped” refers to its leaves. So too do three of its common names—”umbrella leaf,” “duck’s foot,” and “Puck’s foot” (the forest fairy in A Midsummer Night’s Dream).
Its fruit has also inspired several alternative names—”Indian apple,” “hog apple,” (wild pigs love it), “wild lemon,” “ground lemon,” and “raccoon berry.”
Its medicinal uses have given it still more nicknames that need more explanation for modern readers. “American mandrake,” the most popular alternative name for mayapple, referred to one of the most powerful of Old World medicinal herbs, mandrake—Mandragora officinarum—that grows in the Mediterranean countries. Its brown root, which penetrates deep into the ground, often branches and resembles a human figure. While neither the plant nor its flower looks like our mayapple, its fruit is a large, fleshy, yellow to orange-colored berry. It was used as a sleeping pill when the sufferer was in pain or being operated on, as a remedy for depression, and as a purgative. Like mayapple, the plant is poisonous.
“Devil’s apple” may refer to its fruit or, more likely, to its medicinal use, because mandrake is also known as “Satan’s apple.” “Vegetable mercury” probably refers to its similar uses to dog’s mercury (Mercurialis perennis) a poisonous plant that is taken as a purgative or laxative. “Vegetable calomel,” comes from the fact that calomel was used as a purgative and as a fungicide and is also called mercurous chloride, which brings me back to the “vegetable mercury” nickname. “Wild jalop” is similarly confusing. Jalop is a Mexican morning glory used as a purgative, but wild jalop (Ipomoea pandurata), the hated bindweed, is used to treat skin diseases and as a laxative by some herbalists although again it is dangerous to overdose on.
A member of the Barberry family, the mayapple genus has only four species worldwide, our own mayapple and three Asian species. It also has its own fungus—Podophyllum podophylli or the mayapple rust, which only lives and reproduces on mayapple leaves. I find some of the angular, yellow spots on some mayapple leaves every spring.
According to Joan Maloof in her book Among the Ancients: Adventures in the Eastern Old-Growth Forests, the life cycle of the mayapple rust is more complex than that of the mayapple itself. When the mayapple germinates, she writes, a “dark, spiky, club-shaped thing smaller than a grain of sand” also germinates in the forest soil and produces tiny spores. All are in search of mayapple shoots.
When one spore finds a mayapple, it produces a “microscopic, threadlike filament” called a hypha, which is in search of another hypha thread made by a second hypha spore. If they find and merge successfully, they create a hypha with two nuclei in every cell instead of one. They then produce more dark, club-shaped spores which germinate and create a second generation of spores just as the mayapple leaves unfurl. Using wind and/or water, those spores are carried on to the stems and leaves of mayapples. Again the spores germinate and their hyphae look for nutrition and each other.
If the spores land on a mayapple stem or vein with sufficient nutrition, they will create more dark, club-shaped structures that will overwinter on dead leaves on the forest floor, but if they “fuse on leaf blades, they will form pockets filled with rust-colored spores,” Maloof writes, that cannot live through the winter. However, she adds that they “can reinfect the plant, germinate, and eventually form the dark overwintering clubs.” The yellow spots on the leaves are a signal that the fungus has used up the food in the leaf cells and infected the leaves. But Maloof calls this “Mother Nature’s yellow and green abstract art work,” rejecting the negative connotation of the word “infect.”
Maloof reminds us, after her discussion of mayapple rust, that a forest is more than its trees. “And in ways we do not yet fully understand, these small things may determine the lives and deaths of trees.” And not only those of trees, but of humans too, in the case of our amazing medicinal American mayapple.
Imagine receiving a gift of 113 acres on Tussey Mountain. That’s what happened to Mike and Laura Jackson back in 1988 when Laura’s parents, Richard and Phyllis Hershberger, gave them a portion of their farm. The Jacksons named their property Mountain Meadows and built a home with large windows for wildlife viewing.
Part of the land had been pastured. Twice the woods on the higher slopes had been high-graded — “taking the best and leaving the rest” in forester parlance. Then a gypsy moth caterpillar outbreak dealt the final blow to most of the remaining oak trees.
But Mike and Laura, who have devoted their lives to educating themselves and others about the natural world, were undaunted by the challenge of reclaiming their land for wildlife. Experimental and innovative, they have learned from their mistakes as well as their successes.
On a bright, breezy day in late October my husband, Bruce and I bumped over the cattle guard across their driveway and into their three-acre yard, which is enclosed by a five-foot-high fence. There we joined 20 other members of the Juniata Valley Audubon Society on a guided tour of Mountain Meadows.
Laura showed off the 150 foot by 50 foot wildflower garden they had established primarily to attract butterflies and other invertebrates. Although they had hoped to find a native wildflower seed mix suitable for their south-central Pennsylvania site near Everett, they had to settle for a northeastern United States wildflower mix that included cosmos and zinnias, both natives of Mexico, as well as coneflowers, lupines, scarlet flax, tickseeds, larkspurs, cornflowers, wallflowers, Shasta daisies, corn poppies, evening primroses, New England asters, foxgloves, and golden yarrow, only some of which are natives of Pennsylvania or even the northeastern United States. The day we visited the garden displayed a colorful blend of cosmos, zinnias, and cornflowers.
Mike then pointed out a few of the many trees and shrubs they have planted for wildlife. In the past, they had planted non-natives such as buddleia, Calgary pear, burning bush, and Japanese honeysuckle without realizing they were invasive. Calling the knowledge of natives versus non-natives “a steep learning curve,” they finally established a rule that “if it is invasive, remove it. If it is not native and not invasive and provides food and/or cover for wildlife, then we might plant it within our fence,” for example, “blue spruce, holly, and annuals that attract bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds,” Laura said.
Inside their fence, which is a deer exclosure, they can plant trees and shrubs without protection. Outside the fence, every tree and shrub has a wire fence or plastic tube around it. But now they use exclusively wire fencing. The five-foot-high tubes produce “wimpy trees,” Mike said, because the trees grow too fast in the moisture and heat-trapping devices. On the other hand, in wire fences trees grow slower and stronger. The tubes also attract paper wasps, which bears love, so they tear apart the tubes to get at the insects.
Every spring the Jacksons order tree saplings from a variety of sources. During our visit, Mike sang the praises of red mulberry (Morus rubra). These wind-pollinated trees produce dark purple, edible berries in July that are eaten by eastern box turtles, and mammals such as gray and red foxes, gray and fox squirrels, skunks, raccoons, woodchucks and opossums, and once the Jacksons watched black bears mating below the mulberry trees. More than 20 species of songbirds are also attracted to red mulberry fruit. In the words of Charles Fergus, from his wonderful and informative Trees of Pennsylvania and the Northeast: “To observe frantic avian activity, stand in a mulberry grove when the fruit is ripening in early summer. Birds will be everywhere, gobbling down the sweet crop: grackles, starlings, cardinals, robins, catbirds, mockingbirds, thrushes, thrashers, orioles, waxwings, woodpeckers–even crows, clambering about clumsily on the springy boughs.” Unfortunately, such a sight is increasingly rare because red mulberry, which grows across the southern half of Pennsylvania, “has declined greatly in abundance over the last 200 years,” write Ann Fowler Rhoads and Timothy A. Block in their definitive Trees of Pennsylvania.
Other native trees the Jacksons have planted are not as uncommon as red mulberry, for instance, the 50 to 60 eastern redbuds or Judas-trees (Cercis canadensis), which thrive in the southern part of the state and produce a haze of lavender-rose blossoms in early spring. The primary larval food for Henry’s elfin butterflies, their small, pea-like flowers also provide nectar for Henry’s elfins, eastern pine elfins, spring azures, duskywings, and other early butterflies as well as for honeybees.
Sweet American or wild crabapple (Malus coronaria) is our only native crabapple tree and another species the Jacksons planted to attract wildlife. Grosbeaks, foxes, ruffed grouse, skunks, opossums, raccoons, deer, and black bear relish the yellowish-green, sour fruits that mature in autumn, partially fall on the ground and partially remain hanging from the branches throughout the winter.
Washington hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna), another tree the Jacksons planted, is one of many confusing hawthorn species. This native produces fruits that furnish food during the fall and winter for deer, rabbits, raccoons, foxes, squirrels, ruffed grouse, and songbirds.
In the former log yard, they have planted a variety of apple trees but, Mike said, they have to pick the apples before they mature and put them on the ground so the bears don’t rip the trees down to get the fruit.
The Jacksons also wanted to increase nut-bearing trees on their property. Because the American chestnut tree is functionally extinct, they planted Chinese chestnuts (Castanea mollissima) instead. They also planted sawtooth oaks (Quercus acutissima), an Asian native, because they grow fast and produce acorns much sooner than our native oaks.
Native shrubs that are wildlife attractants on the Jacksons’ property include both red-osier (Cornus serocea) and silky (C. racemosa) dogwood. These thicket-producing shrubs provide both food and cover for many birds.
Winterberry (Ilex verticillata), still another choice of the Jacksons, has bright red fruits in September or October that often remain on the branches throughout the winter, hence its common name. Ruffed grouse, cedar waxwings, and other winter birds harvest the fruits.
The Jacksons also put in a hybrid of the American hazelnut (Corylus americana), which produces sweet, edible nuts that are almost immediately harvested by squirrels, chipmunks, blue jays, deer, and ruffed grouse.
In addition to planting trees, shrubs, and flowers to attract wildlife, Mike constructed an enormous, tepee-shaped wildlife brush pile in their woods. At its base he has a hole big enough for a hibernating bear to crawl into. Although he set up a trail camera near the brush pile and caught a sow and her cubs on film, so far no bear has hibernated in it.
Mike is an avid deer hunter and has built a huge tree stand in his woods. During our walk along their woodland trail, we saw many mature shagbark hickory trees, two healthy butternut trees, and an enormous white oak that took three people — their arms outstretched — to reach around its trunk. Mike also showed us his American Woodcock Habitat Site where he has to remove dozens of invasives to make it viable for woodcocks.
Back in 2002, the Jacksons joined the Pennsylvania Forest Stewardship program and, working with their Service Forester, drew up a plan for their property that emphasized attracting wildlife. They have documented their work to improve their land under the stewardship program in a loose leaf notebook, complete with photos. More recently, they have added American mountain ash and witch hazel to the tree species on their property.
As former teachers — Mike taught fifth grade in the Everett elementary school and Laura taught advanced biology and environmental sciences in Bedford High School — they have been keeping lists of the plants and animals on their property. Of the 37 mammal species, a Russian wild boar was the most distressing and a bobcat the most exciting. They’ve also recorded 117 bird species, 29 shrubs, 13 vines, 14 coniferous trees, 78 deciduous trees, 8 snakes, 4 turtles, 8 frogs and toads, 4 salamanders, and, so far, 92 insects, and 8 spider species.
Mike takes special interest in the eastern box turtles and timber rattlesnakes he finds. One notebook is devoted to the turtles. He photographs each turtle’s shell and plastron and files a notch on the edge of its shell. That way, when he sees a box turtle, he can figure out whether it is new to him or a repeat. Just before we arrived, he recorded box turtle #90 — an astounding number. Once he watched a female lay eggs on a path that they planned to dig up. He moved the eggs into a raised bed in their garden and fenced it. He and Laura kept a close watch on it and saw hatchlings emerge from it late in the summer.
Mike, with the help of Laura, is also adept at handling rattlesnakes. Each year he captures every rattlesnake he sees and measures it. So far, the eight he has captured have been between 36 and 45 inches long. He also sexes and photographs them. When I asked him why he does this, he said, “Because I’m curious about them. Are any returning? How many do we have? How much do they grow every year?” And once again, he keeps meticulous records on them.
Did I mention that they were wildlife rehab assistants under a local veterinarian for ten years? In that time they rehabbed 54 orphaned opossums, 34 gray squirrels, 17 red-phase and 16 gray-phase eastern screech-owls, and 7 American kestrels, in addition to barred owls, a beaver kit that the PGC gave them to raise, and a baby flying squirrel. Laura particularly enjoyed raising owls, but she told a funny story about the flying squirrel.
“We had it in a bird cage, never realizing that it could squeeze through the bars of the cage. We searched high and low for three days, but never found it. On the fourth day, I found it… snuggled in a laundry basket full of dirty clothes. Fortunately, when I decided to wash the clothes, I sorted them one by one and didn’t just dump them into the washing machine.”
The day of our visit their bird feeders hosted three male purple finches and a female. Their turkey pen held wild turkeys that they raise. Water lilies bloomed in a water garden in front of their home, which contained green frogs, a painted turtle, and a bullfrog.
Laura has taken a part time job, since she retired, as Director of the Bedford School District’s Environmental Center, but both she and Mike have taken on an even more monumental volunteer position. As founders of SOAR (Save Our Allegheny Ridges), they are trying to educate people about the detrimental effects of industrial wind farms on wildlife. Although they are not opposed to wind farms if they are appropriately sited in states “where the wind comes sweeping down the plains,” and even on such devastated areas as former strip mines, they are appalled that for a possible one percent of the electric power we need, plans are afoot to put them on many of the mountaintops in northern and central Pennsylvania. These mountaintops contain some of the state’s last unfragmented habitat for wildlife. Already the Jacksons have documented with photos the problems this so-called “green power” is causing on our mountaintops, namely, erosion, despoiling of Class A wild trout streams, and providing, on land that has been cleared for access roads and around the windmills, ATV trails.
Fishermen and hunters are alarmed to see still more of our wild land and waterways compromised. Studies by wildlife biologists have already documented incredible bat kills during migration as they are chopped up by the enormous windmill blades. The blades are also a danger to migrating songbirds and raptors, all of which use our ridges as migratory corridors. Canada has many industrial wind farms, but they have a law that forbids building them on mountaintops. Too bad we haven’t followed their example.
Every day, it seems, the Jacksons send us notice of still another problem with the siting of industrial wind farms. The Jacksons always thought of themselves as conservationists, but now they have become environmentalists in defense of wildlife. Wish them luck in their venture.
All photos were taken by Bruce Bonta.