Podophyllum peltatum, commonly know as Mayapple, is one of my favorite plants, when it is in bloom in April. Known as Devil's apple, hog apple, Indian apple, umbrella plant, wild lemon, and American mandrake (though it should not be confused with true mandrake, Mandragora officinarum, an unrelated Old World plant whose roots have been used throughout history for medicines and potions).
Picture of a Mayapple flower
When I first assessed the botanical and horticultural possibilities of my home, I notice that I would be blessed with almost all of the major invasive species that are found outside of Washington D.C. Along with my two callery pears at the front entrance, I found I had a woodland full of multiflora rose, English ivy, Japanese stiltgrass, and garlic mustard, along with a healthy dose of mile-a-minute weed.
Picture of English ivy, multflora rose, garlic mustard all invasive species & the Mayapples I am seeking to encourage and protect.
But I also noticed in my spring survey, hundreds if not thousands of Mayapples. When I mowed the area for the first time, I was careful to mark each seedling Mayapple and skirted the area, marking the outline of the patches with dead limbs of trees. I used this marking system because I knew that the Mayapple would be dormant through the summer and I wanted to avoid compacting the soil with my large mower.
My neighbor came over to introduce himself and told me apologetically that I had missed quite a few patches. I told him that Mayapples sell for around ten dollars each at retail, and he told me that he had just mowed all his weeds down. I noted that he had just reduced his garden net worth by a thousand dollars.
Pictures of Mayapples growing on the side of a gentle slope
I am fortunate that the property had a large swale descending towards a ravine which seems ideal for the native plants. They are on the north-west side of the old farm field and get just enough light from the hedgerow trees which grew up when farming stopped a few decades ago. My Mayapples grow up to 18”tall growing in naturalized patches, Each plant had two leaves with a rather large white flower (this year, 2008, they have become to bloom to bloom in late April. Because fo the gentle slopes that the plants have settled, it is rather easy to view the flowers, which in a flat planting can remain hard to see. Later in early summer the plants will develop yellow-green berries. The species is toxic (poisonous) to another native, the eastern white tailed deer. Poison is a good thing because we have a family of twelve living in the ravines around our 6 acres.
Native deer have the following menu specifications: 1. Any plant purchased for over 100.00 dollars; for instance collectible hostas, the more expensive the early the deer find it and consume it,, 2. Any native which is not poisonous, 3. Any plant bought for its blooms, 6. Vegetable garden plants which would be good for your dinner. 7 Anything left with the exception of plants on the invasive species watch list for the given area, 8. Your car’s bumper.
Sometimes, I hear well-meaning gardeners tell me that native plants are no maintenance plants. What they mean to say is that traditional gardening practices may not be needed, but, there are some gardening practices which must be used even in native gardening. Weeding is big on the list. I have included a picture of my next patch to salvage. The reader may notice the opportunities for me to practice high maintenance gardening as I work to control the English Ivy, remove the garlic mustard, and control the multiflora rose. This is definitely not no-maintenance, and will in fact take several years.
Picture of an invasive species and Mayapples : early dedection and rapid response know to gardeners as weeding
Each year around this time, I walk the swale and look for seedlings to avoid mowing, as I work to expand the naturalized colonies. I would like to plant native azaleas, but the deer pressure is too great, so I mostly dream of what might be if we could only get our eco-system into some semblance of balance. I hope to begin carefully interspersing native ferns do that I can have something besides non-native grasses during the summer and the ever persistent pressure from invasives that the dormant Mayapples provide.
I occasionally dig some roots after the berries drop to start new colonies, and will do the same when I begin to plant ferns. Because, in a sense, I am caring for the Mayapples they are becoming domesticated and not truly native species. This is part of the challenge that gardeners face when confronted by the no cultivar stakeholder position. Either you go into a native collection and take genetic material diminishing the total available for the random interaction of pollination, or you carefully propagate, and in the process create domesticated plants, which are a selection from the wild, and therefore your own personal cultivar.
Picture of a Mayapple seedling
Sustainable conservation landscaping carries with its guidelines the use of traditional gardening design principles such as form, color and texture. Bringing a sense of order, gently guiding plant placement can be done with natives. Doing nothing and letting whatever wants to grow when it wants to grow is to create a truly natural garden and certainly is a valid garden concept, but it is not the only concept.
Gardening is like cooking. There are many cakes to be made; we all have our favorites. We can decide to cook in a healthy fashion and still bake different cakes. So to with garden designs; we can agree to garden using sustainable principles and yet create different gardens.