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Mighty Mayapple

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Spring is a time of welcoming back old friends, sometimes only for a short window of time. You might think of birds that come through Toronto on their way to the boreal forest. But this can be true for plants, too. Mayapple is one of them! A woodland ephemeral (or spring wild flower) they are one of the first plants to come up and unfurl their curious large, dark green, umbrella-like leaf.

Mayapple produces two leaves only when it plans to make a special single flower that is white, fragrant and well-hidden underneath the leaves. In the summer this flower evolves into a yellow, lemon-shaped berry that is a tasty wildlife snack. Thus, another name is ground lemon. But it mainly reproduces from rhizomes – one underground stem that is the single ancestor of many individual plants (clones) in the plant colony.

Mayapple roots, leaves and seeds are poisonous. But it is also a powerful medicinal herb used for a wide range of diseases including in anti-cancer drugs. Occasionally it is called American Mandrake.

Why do spring wildflowers in the forest are in a hurry to grow right now? Because this is how they share space and sunlight in a dense, moist forest with so many other bigger plants! Wildflowers are first, then come the ferns, the shrubs, the understory trees and finally the canopy trees. It’s a very orderly progression to give everyone a chance to take in sunlight energy. Come summer less than 1 % of sunlight reaches the forest floor and the Mayapple leaves disappear.

Keep and eye out for Mayapples on your next visit to High Park!