A May-apple a Day May Just Keep the Doctor Away by Rebekah Honce

A Mayapple in flower. Photo courtesy of Jeff McMillian.

A Mayapple in flower. Photo courtesy of Jeff McMillian.

By Guest Blogger Rebekah Honce

Everyone knows the old saying: an apple a day keeps the doctor away. Well that just may be the case, but for a slightly different “apple.” Podophyllum peltatum, better known as the may-apple, is a small, perennial herb found in eastern North America that has some surprising health benefits.

In the Family Berberidaceae and one of two species in genus Podophyllum, May-apple is native to North America, and can be found from southern Canada, south to Florida and west to Minnesota, eastern Kansas, Nebraska and Texas (1), and is abundant in all regions of the Appalachians, including West Virginia. May-apple is typically found in highly shaded, moist environments; so, take a stroll through the local woods in late spring and early summer to catch a glimpse of P. peltatum in its natural habitat. Key features are the two large leaves characterized by five to nine deep lobes, giving the herb an umbrella-like appearance. In March and May, you are likely to see a one to two inch white to light pink flower. After flowering, a yellow, apple-like berry develops during the early summer months (2). However, you will not find may-apple in pine forests or with many confrères, as it dislikes competition for resources (1).

            Recorded use of the may-apple by humans goes back many centuries. North American Indians would harvest the fruit and use it as an emetic to induce vomiting, a cathartic to induce defecation, and an antihelmintic agent to expel parasitic worms (2).  Women would even use it to induce abortion (1) . Fast-forward to the 19th century and P. peltatum was touted as a panacea. Some “wiser” members of the population may remember Carter’s Little Liver Pills, which contained aloe (Aloe barbadensis) and podophyllum resin (3). First produced in 1868, these pills were advertised as a remedy for a “torpid liver,” headaches, constipation, sluggishness, and general malaise. In the early 20th century, they became increasingly prevalent in households across the United States and across the world. However, they were found to only be effective as a laxative and the Federal Trade Commission required them to drop the “liver” from their name in 1959 (4). They were actively advertised as Carter’s Little Pills well into the 1960s (5), and produced with the original formula through the 1980s (3). The pills’ lasting cultural significance was highlighted in 2000, when upon reelection to the United States senate, Robert C. Byrd stated “West Virginia has always had four friends: God Almighty, Sears Roebuck, Carter's Liver Pills and Robert C. Byrd” (2).

            While Carter’s Pills may not be popular today, may-apple still holds a place in many medicine cabinets. Recent research has pointed to novel treatments for diseases as serious as lung cancer. Podophyllotoxin (PPT), concentrated in the leaves, unripe fruit, and rhizomes, is the active phytochemical. Synthesized PPT is a popular marketed treatment for genital warts, as it halts cell division and new cell growth (6). Halting uncontrolled cell division makes PPT an attractive chemotherapy agent to control the unregulated growth typical of cancer cells (2). Current research targets this synthesized phytochemical for treating lymphoma, lung cancer, and even autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis (6). However, PPT is toxic if ingested in high quantities. Most medical groups warn against may-apple’s use as a food, but if carefully collected the ripe berry can be made into jams, jellies, and marmalades (7).

            So, maybe the next time you are feeling a bit sluggish, take a stroll in your nearby woods and scour the shaded floor for some may-apple to make a batch of homemade jam. Or, on second thought, stick with the tree-variety apple if you really want to keep the doctor at bay.


1. USDA. Podophyllum peltatum L.: The Mayapple. USDA Plant Profile. [Online] USDA, 2014.           http://plants.usda.gov/.

2. Center, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower. Podophyllum peltatum. Native Plant Database.           [Online] 2014. http://www.wildflower.org/plants.

3. Carter's Little Liver Pills. Advertising Age. [Online] Crain Communications, September 15,       2003. [Cited: November 12, 2014.] http://adage.com/.

4. Cut Out the Liver. TIME Magazine. 1951.

5. Obituary of Henry Hoyt. NY Times. [Online] 1990. http://www.nytimes.com/.

6. Podophyllum L. [book auth.] George E. Burrows and Ronald J. Tyrl. Toxic Plants of North      America. Ames : Iowa State UP, 2003, pp. 261-265.

7. Deane, Greane. Mayapple, Mandrake: The Forgotton Fruit. Eat the Weeds. [Online] Greane     Deane, LLC, 20114. http://www.eattheweeds.com/.