Mayapples Rising

“That botany is a useful study is plain; because it is in vain that we know betony is good for headaches, or self-heal for wounds unless we can distinguish betony and self-heal from one another.” John Hill, The Family Herbal, 1812.

Mayapple; American Mandrake; Podophyllum peltatumNames are reference points, symbols — vehicles for communicating and distinguishing one thing from another. The nature of a person, place, or plant does not change because of its name. As Juliet reminds us, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. . .”.

Although the plant doesn’t care what you call it, people do. Confusion inevitably arises if simultaneously more than one name is applied to a person, place, or plant. Similarly, if the same name is given to several plants or persons over a period of time, ambiguity may persist. With a name like Steven Foster, I lived with quips about “my” songs, taking such comments with a smile and my standard response, “I haven’t written any songs for a hundred years.” What am I to say if someone asks if I’m the real Steven Foster? Yes, I’m real.  But so was the other one.

Recently, a user posted a picture of mayapples beginning to emerge from a Chinese garden in Portland, Oregon. She asked what the plant could be.  It was Himalayan Mayapple! Beyond the identification and taxonomy, several genera in the Berberidaceae (barberry family) are among THE classic examples of disjunctions in plant geography. There are  only two species accepted in the genus Podophyllum, including the American mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) and an eastern Asiatic counterpart Podophyllum hexandrum (also known as Podophyllum emodi). In 1979 a Chinese botanist proposed a new separate genus and renamed P. hexandrum  as Sinopodophyllum hexandrum. The most recent expert work on the plant group keeps the Chinese species as Podophyllum hexandrum.  Taxonomy is like law — it is based on expert opinion (and there’s no taxonomic “supreme court”). There are several mayapple cultivars floating around in the nursery trade that have meaningless made-up names. Other small genera in the barberry family with only two to three species ALL have their closest relatives a hemisphere away! For example, in the genera Diphylleia, Jeffersonia, Caulophyllum (blue cohosh) there are only two to three species each and their closet relatives are on the other side of the world! The “interrupted Eastern Asiatic–Eastern North America range, involving up to 150 plant genera” is the classic series of disjunct populations in biogeography.

The resin of mayapple contains the toxic lectin podophyllotoxin which is used as the starting material for three anti-cancer drugs used in chemotherapy. Globally, the drug of choice for topical treatment of HPV (human papillomavirus) genital warts, also known as venereal warts are over-the-counter or prescription drugs (depending upon country and regulations) made from podophyllin resin. Most of the commercial raw podophyllin resin in world wholesale natural product ingredient markets comes from the Asian rather than American mayapple.

Plant identification is always more than meets the eye. It bridges generations; past, present, and future; human diversity and continents!

Mayapple; American Mandrake; Podophyllum peltatum

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Steven Foster

Describing her first visit with Steven Foster in 1977, Harvard University botanist, Dr. Shiu Ying Hu (1908-2012), wrote, “Our conversation reminded me of something that Confucius said two thousand years ago. ‘In any company of three persons, there must be one who can be my teacher’. . . I found in Steven Foster a teacher who could share a profound knowledge of economic botany, particularly in the cultivation and uses of herbs.” In 1974, at age 17, Steven Foster, began his career at the Sabbathday Lake, Maine, Shaker Community Herb Department —America's oldest herb business, dating to 1799. There he established three acres of production gardens and managed 1700 acres for the commercial harvest of botanicals. For forty-three years, Steven has photographed and researched herbs from the Amazon rainforest to the highlands of Vietnam. Foster has over 900 photo-illustrated articles published in a wide range of media. Steven also served as Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the American Botanical Council, and a Contributing Editor to the organization's journal, HerbalGram. Steven is the author, co-author and photographer of eighteen books, including the NEW 2014 Third Edition of A Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants: Eastern and Central North America (with James A. Duke), along with National Geographic’s Complete Guide to Medicinal Herbs (2010), and A Desk Reference to Nature’s Medicine (2006, with Rebecca Johnson), awarded a 2007 New York Public Library “Best of Reference.” He is senior author of three other Peterson Field Guides, including A Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs (with Dr. James A. Duke), 1st & 2nd editions, 1990, 2000; A Field Guide to Western Medicinal Plants and Herbs with Dr. Christopher Hobbs, (2002); and A Field Guide to Venomous Animals and Poisonous Plants of North America (with Roger Caras, 1995). Other titles include Herbal Emissaries: Bringing Chinese Herbs to the West (with Prof. Yue Chongxi, 1992); Herbal Renaissance (1994); among others. Foster makes his home in Eureka Springs, Arkansas.