I posted a contest in my herbal medicine group Megan’s Herbal Apothecary the other day- who could identify this native Wisconsin fruit?
It took quite a few guesses before someone found it online. This is the delicious, elusive, & highly sought-after Mayapple (Podophyllum), also known as Wild Mandrake. I have been searching for this fruit you see here for TWO years, and I had been tracking this particular plant since spring.
So what’s the hype? Well for starters, it’s difficult to find. The plants are few and far between, and each plant only bears one fruit. The fruits are generally only ripe from the last couple weeks of August to the first week of September.
Every part of the plant you see above picture is highly poisonous. Until the fruit turns a delicate yellow color and becomes soft, it is toxic. Because the ripe fruits are so tasty, they are a favorite of wildlife and are typically enjoyed before humans ever find them. So even if you DO find these rare plants, and DO visit them during the right time, there are no guarantees you’ll get to enjoy the literal fruit of your labor.
Wait… do you see what I see??
Could it be?? A ripe Mayapple! Holy crap!
(My actual face when I found it. The toddler was unimpressed.)
Come to find out, my favorite park for hiking in my hometown of Little Chute is full of Mayapple patches. I located about 15 patches, with dozens of plants. Out of that, I got 2 ripe fruits, and 3 green ones that I’m hoping will ripen on my counter.
Now this is what blows my mind- a hundred years ago, everyone knew what these plants were. Everyone knew how to walk into their backyard and prepare a salad, pick dessert, or season their dinners. This particular park is full of food and medicine, and wild foods always have more nutrition than anything you could ever buy or even grow yourself. I have prepared dozens of medicinal tinctures from the plants I harvest here, and prepared countless (free!) meals. Imagine how our perception of the environment would change, how our health would change, how our grocery bills would go down, how our stress levels would be dramatically reduced- if only we reconnected with this ancient and innate wisdom and basked in the beauty of it?
Mayapple plants (on the left) growing right next to the walking path. Hundreds of people pass by them each year, not realizing it’s food.
Well, anyways enough of my tangent- but do consider learning how to identify and use wild plants- it’s an incredible experience!!
So anyways, my first bite of this mysterious and elusive deliciousness.
The Mayapple has an intoxicatingly deep fruity, perfumey scent. The flesh has the consistency and flavor of banana, paired with the flavor of a very ripe pear and hints of tangerine & lemon. The tender skins have a stronger hint of lemon to them, with a sweetly pleasant tang. The membranes surrounding the seeds in the middle are even sweeter- a deep, perfumy essence with a touch of vanilla. But don’t be fooled by it’s alluring flavor- the seeds are poisonous. I sucked the middle part until I got as much of the membranes off as I could, and spit out the seeds in the woods in the hopes they will become another Mayapple patch next year. (Word of caution- eating too many Mayapples can cause digestive upset. Likely why nature was wise enough to have only one fruit per plant, and make multiple fruits so hard to find!)
What an incredible experience! I know herbalists who have gone years without ever getting to experience the delight of finding and enjoying this delicious Wisconsin treat.
So if you’re out and about this time of year- do watch for the Mayapples!
One last shot of Heesaker Park. (Ooh, what is that in the bottom corner??) 😉
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Megan Kerkhoff is a Certified Health Counselor and Certified Family Herbalist at Aayus Holistic Health Services in Neenah, Wisconsin, and resides in Little Chute, Wisconsin.