Mayapple Crop Improvement Project
The North American Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) has much to offer as a plant for agroecological systems: 1) It grows in the woods -- of which we have no shortage in the US & Canada -- loves shade, and it doesn't crowd out other plants. 2) It's a perennial, of course. 3) It is easily transplanted by rhizome in the fall or early winter. 4) It's a powerful (and potentially dangerous) medicinal plant -- one of the first chemotherapy agents, still in use. And 5) It's delicious.
Only the pulp of the ripe fruit is edible - not the skin nor seeds. The whole plant, including the unripe fruit, contains the podophyllin toxin, the most medically active component (which is most concentrated in the rhizome). It can be grown from seed, so it can be bred, though the process is slow.
We're undertaking a long-term breeding program to achieve multiple goals. Primarily, it's important to develop high-podophyllin-content varieties that also multiply more quickly than most wild mayapples because the closely related Asian mayapples are being wild-harvested at an unsustainable rate to meet global demand for cancer medicine. Past research has indicated wide variation in podophyllin content among wild populations, so breeding should be very worthwhile. It would also be nice to improve existing wild strains for better fruit production. My own experience in the woods has led me to believe there's great variation in terms of size, vigor, disease resistance, fruit production, and even flavor.
The plants in the photo attached are all 'Tracy' mayapples growing at the EFN flagship farm in NJ. They were transplanted from a private home in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania a year ago and named after the late couple I presume transplanted them from the wild (either in PA or their native North Carolina) to their backyard. They are the tallest I've ever seen, with the widest leaves and the biggest fruit. They also seem to have a much higher proportion than is typical of flowering shoots (many wild colonies are mainly non-flowering shoots, with perhaps 10% flowering; the 'Tracy' mayapple is close to the reverse, with 80 or 90% of shoots flowering when conditions are good).
If you have access to patch of mayapples, particularly any extraordinary ones, please do get in touch. If you're willing to dig some rhizomes and mail them to us, we would very much appreciate it. In many parts of the US and Canada, in late summer you might find ripe fruit either hanging on the plant or lying on the forest floor. Any seeds - fresh, still wet, not dried - would also be much appreciated. You can contact me here or by email at [email protected] for more information.
If you sign up to join this project, you may be sent mayapple seeds or rhizome for propagation (though amounts are limited).
JUST VOLUNTEER GROWERS: Volunteers with long-term land tenure and suitable woodland habitat may be asked to grow out a particular mayapple strain or two, and to make observations over a few years (mainly to note flowering/fruiting percentages, size, and rate of multiplication). At some point, volunteers will likely be asked to return seeds or rhizome.