Tonight’s Forage Friday post is a plant that has been known to cause fatalities. While extracts from Mayapple are used in modern pharmaceutical preparations this one is definitely not for home remedies.
In early Spring one of the first green plants to burst through the leaf litter is the Mayapple. The only edible part is the fully ripe fruit and even then the seeds must be removed. Something that I have never tried because as soon as they ripen the wildlife snatches them up. In fact I’ve only seen the ripe fruit once in my life and it had already been nibbled. So no Mayapple taste tests for me.
When the shoots first come up the twin leaves are wrapped around the stem and the marble sized flower bud has already formed. They’ve always reminded me of the stereotype vampire wrapped in a cloak at this point.
In the past I’ve mentioned that some plants may not be good as forage for food but that they are a more of wild cash crop and that’s where Mayapple comes in on my forage plant list. The plant contains a cytostatic substance called Podophyllotoxin that was once part of a drug that was used topically to remove warts. But because it is a substance that inhibits cell growth it’s being researched for possible use in treating cancers. If you can locate a buyer they usually buy it by the pound. The top search result on Google comes from August of 2019 and shows $4.00/lbs. Ginseng normally goes for around $600 to $800/lbs and at first it sounds like a low price for Mayapple but when look at the time and energy invested in harvest Mayapple pays off in the lbs/hr.
An emerging colony of Mayapple
Mayapple grows in large colonies that at times can cover the whole mountainside with lush green foliage. Whereas Ginseng is more commonly found as a single plant here and there. So when you figure the time investment Ginseng might not even pay minimum wage.
A colony of Mayapple almost ready to bloom.
Mayapple grows from a long thin rhizome. What looks like a colony might actually be single plant. The vine-like root system is connected with the rest of the forest by mycorrhizal fungus that transports nutrients to the roots and even may carry chemical messages between the herbaceous layer and the trees towering above. (For more about how plants talk to each other check out this article on LingQ)
If you choose to make Mayapple into cash crop it’s this root that the buyers want. Some will buy it freshly dug but most want it cleaned up and dried. Always wash the roots in cold water and hang them up to dry out of direct sunlight and with plenty of air flow to avoid mold from forming. It’s common for this type of root to lose 7 times it’s harvest mass in the drying process. When the root is brittle enough to snap without bending it’s done. A preservation tip is to store it in paper and not plastic. It needs to breathe to prevent mold. If you think about the bagged salad from the grocery store it usually gets slimy after a few days and that’s what’s going on happen to Mayapple roots if you put them in plastic. ( A great idea that works to keep salad fresh is to place a paper towel or napkin in the bag. )
Timing is also important for harvesting Mayapple roots. Most buyers will want roots that were harvested in September and October because that’s when it’s most potent.
Native Americans used Mayapple for various treatments but it’s just too toxic for me to be comfortable with. But as a way to gain a little extra spending money it can be a great natural resource.
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