Maybe Mayapples, Week Ending 8/11/2019

A friend and I once debated whether some foods just weren’t worth the effort to forage. I believe I was describing battered and fried dandelion flowers, to which he remarked – If I am desperate to the point of eating dandelion flowers, I am too desperate to bother frying them first.

To me, foraging and eating wild foods isn’t about being desperate. Its about appreciating the gifts nature has to offer. No, I haven’t cooked dandelion flower fritters yet, but that’s primarily due to my own cooking insecurities, rather than humbleness on the dandelion’s part.

That said, I feel like I have found something that really isn’t worth the trouble.

Maybe mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum).

Last year I stalked mayapple fruit, but failed to ever harvest any. This year, I of course had to try again.

Given how thickly mayapple carpets the forest floor in the early spring, I knew I would be able to harvest the fruit if I just kept checking the same patch throughout the foraging season.

A carpet of mayapples in April
A carpet of mayapples in April

Each diminutive small plant bears at most a single flower.

April showers bring may(apple) flowers
April showers bring may(apple) flowers

Not all flowers will set fruit. The ones that do will slowly get larger (or not) over the next several months.

Mayapple in May
Mayapple in May

Mayapple is a very small fruit, borne singly on a short woodland plant. Most foraging guides say the forest animals will beat you to the tasty treat, but I attribute my challenge find them last year to the fact that they lose their leaves and are hard to find as the undergrowth closes in.  The leaves fade away, and other plants crowd in, making it harder and harder to locate the fruit. I think some plants simply died off due to crowding or weather – who knows – because the lush colonies had shrunk to a few stragglers.

By the time they were ripe, only a few plants remained for harvest anyway. The few fruit I could still monitor were very close to ripe in late July. At last, this week, a few were finally ready to harvest.

Tiny little mayapple harvest
Tiny little mayapple harvest

Unfortunately, there were wood nettles between me and the mayapples, and my arms show the welts clearly. The nettles stung my legs as well, and unfortunately there was no jewelweed nearby. I suffered in silence on the long walk home. …who am I kidding! I whimpered the entire way.

Battle wounds - me versus the nettle
Battle wounds – me versus the nettle

The foraging guides often recommend harvesting them a bit early, before the critters get them, so I collected the largest one I could find even though it was still slightly green. The one on the right is overripe. The quarter is for size perspective. 

Mayapples are small! Quarter included for scale.
Mayapples are small! Quarter included for scale.

Every part of the mayapple is toxic except for the ripe, yellow fruit. Even the skins should be avoided; most sources advise avoiding the seeds as well. Ripe mayapples are very fragrant, almost tropical smelling, which helps attract wildlife (and confirms ripeness for foraging humans).

In these photos, I used the slightly green mayapple because it was the largest; I thought it would photograph the best. DO NOT EAT MAYAPPLE WITH ANY GREEN ON THE FRUIT. I composted this one, after it had served its photographic purpose. 

Mayapple guts
Mayapple guts

Once you scoop out the seeds, there isn’t very much to eat!  The problem is, the tastiest part of the mayapple I sampled (which was NOT the green fruit in these photos!), is the pulp around the seeds. I didn’t swallow any seeds, or even chew or anything. I just held it in my mouth and savored. It tasted so much better than the flesh between the seeds and the peel.

There's barely any mayapple left after you scoop out the seeds!
There’s barely any mayapple left after you scoop out the seeds!

I found mayapple recipes online, but I just can’t imagine harvesting and processing enough of the fruit to bother cooking in a recipe! If you magically manage to harvest enough mayapples, you can find recipes for mayapple jelly and jam here.

So they were hard to find.

By the time they were ripe, only a few plants remained for harvest anyway.

The fruits were relatively small, and you can only actually eat a small amount of the fruit. And the best part of the fruit was the hardest to eat for fear of swallowing the seeds.

At least if you cook the mayapples and use a foodmill to extract the seeds and skins, you’ll get more of the tasty part of the fruit. But is it really worth it? Probably not for me!

Have you had more luck foraging mayapples? What other wild food have you tried that just wasn’t worth the trouble? (I mean, besides hoary bittercress, we already established that one…)


  1. I guess that’s why many wild foods stay wild, and we generally eat a more limited range of plants that produce food more easily! Those may apples have fantastic foliage though. I love the leaf shape!

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