Podophyllum peltatum. May Apple.

Botanical name: 

Pl. 23. Podophyllum peltatum. THE Podophyllum peltatum or May apple, otherwise called Mandrake in this country, inhabits low shady situations from New England to Georgia. On the Atlantic coast I have never met with it farther north than Boston, yet in the interior of the country it has a more extensive range. From its large creeping roots, it has a great tendency to multiply, and is always found in beds of greater or less extent. Its flowering time is from March to May.

This plant is one of the Ranunculaceae of Jussieu and Rhoeades of Linnaeus; and is in the first order of the Class Polyandria.

Its generic character consists in a calyx of three leaves; from six to nine petals; and a one-celled berry crowned with the stigma. Only one species is at present known which strictly belongs to the genus.

The May apple has a jointed running root about half the size of the finger, by which it spreads extensively in rich grounds, where it gets introduced. The stem is about a foot in height, and invested at its base by the sheaths which covered it when in bud. It is smooth, round and erect, dividing at top into two round petioles from three to six inches long. Each petiole supports a large peltate, palmate leaf, smooth above, slightly pubescent beneath, deeply divided into about seven lobes, which are wedge shaped, two parted and toothed at the extremity. On the inside the leaf is cleft almost to the petiole. In barren stems which support but one leaf this does not take place, and the leaf is very perfectly peltate. In the fork of the stem is a solitary flower on a round nodding peduncle one or two inches long. Calyx of three oval, obtuse, concave leaves, cohering in the bud by their scarious margins, and breaking off at base when the flower expands. Petals from six to nine. Linnaeus makes them nine in his generic character, but in this climate 1 have found them more frequently seven even in luxuriant specimens growing in very rich soil. They are obovate, obtuse, concave, smooth, white with slight transparent veins. Stamens shorter than the petals, curving upwards; the anthers oblong, twice as long as their filaments. Germ oval, compressed, obscurely angular. Stigma nearly sessile, convex, its surface rendered irregular by numerous convolutions and folds. The flower is succeeded by a large ovate yellowish fruit, which is one celled, many seeded and crowned with the stigma. Its early period of ripening has given rise to the trivial name of May apple.

The dried root of the May apple is fragile and easily reduced to powder. It has a peculiar and rather unpleasant taste, but without much acrimony. When chewed for some time, it manifests a strong bitter taste. Both the tincture and decoction are intensely bitter. When water is added to the alcoholic solution the mixture becomes very gradually turbid, and at length opaque. On the other hand, alcohol disturbs both the infusion and decoction, especially the latter, in which it produces, after some time, a pearly whiteness. The trials I have made with it lead me to conclude that it contains a resin, a bitter extractive matter, faecula and a slight proportion of a gummy substance.

The medicinal properties of the Podophyllum peltatum are those of a sure and active cathartic, in which character it deserves a high rank among our indigenous productions. We have hardly any native plant which answers better the common purposes of jalap, aloes and rhubarb, and which is more safe and mild in its operation. The root is the part to be employed, and should be given in substance in fine powder. I have commonly found twenty grains to operate with efficacy, and not to be attended with pain or inconvenience. In irritable stomachs it sometimes occasions nausea and vomiting, but this effect, as is well known, may ensue from any cathartic medicine. The late Professor Barton informs us, that although the root is an excellent cathartic, the leaves are poisonous, and the whole plant has something of a narcotic quality. Its botanical affinities would justify, a priori, a suspicion of this kind. In the various trials which I have made with it, I have not observed any such property in the root. The leaves I have never subjected to experiment for any purpose.

The fruit is acid and agreeable to the taste of many persons. It is sometimes called wild lemons, and is eaten with impunity.

The root is said by some physicians to be a medicine particularly suited to dropsy. It has also had the character in the Southern States of curing intermittent fever.

A physician in Albany informs me that the Shakers at Lebanon, N. Y. prepare an extract of the Podophyllum, which is much esteemed by medical practitioners as a mild cathartic. These people are well known to our druggists by the care and neatness with which they prepare a variety of medicines from native and naturalized pharmaceutical plants.

For medicinal use the root of the May apple is advised to be dug in the cold season, when vegetation is not active, viz. in the autumn and winter. At this part of the year the secretions of perennial plants are concentrated in their roots, and the same weight of their substance is less diluted with the watery or ascending sap, than it is at any other period. This constitutes a reason why the roots of all perennial plants should, as far as practicable, be taken up during the cold season. But from what I have been able to observe, the difference of their virtue in different months is much less than is commonly supposed. I never knew a medicinal plant whose efficacy was destroyed in consequence of being taken up even at midsummer, although it may be in some degree lessened. It is probable that those roots which constitute staple articles of commerce, as ipecac, gentian, rhubarb, &c. are gathered indiscriminately for exportation at all seasons when they are to be found. Being collected by savages or by ignorant persons, who seek for them in their native wilds, and who are not much interested in their future efficacy; it is probable they would be gathered in greatest quantities when their vegetation was most luxuriant, because at this time their shoots and tops would be most conspicuous. We know this to be the case with our Ginseng, Spigelia, Snake root, &c. which form considerable articles of exportation, and which it would be difficult to find at any other than the vegetating season. [Annual plants should be gathered at the time when their vegetation is most vigorous, which is generally from the time they begin to flower, until the leaves begin to change. The leaves contain the greatest activity in most annual plants employed for medicine, while the root is a comparatively insignificant part, being small, woody and fibrous. Thus the leaves of Stramonium and Tobacco are much more active than the root.
Biennial plants should, in most instances, be gathered in the second season of their growth, and about the time of flowering. The leaves of these plants also contain their medicinal activity, as in Hemlock and Henbane. The roots are medicinal, but usually in a less degree. In some aromatic biennials, the seeds are the most important part of the plant.]

Botanical References.

Podophyllum peltatum, Linn. Sp. pl.
Michaux, Flora, i. 309.
Pursh, ii. 366.
Lamarck, Illust. gen.
Trew, Ehret, t. 29.
Anapodophyllum Canadense, Catesby, Car. i. 24.
Aconitifolius humilis &c. Mentz. pug. t. 11.

Medical References.

Schoepf, 86.
B. S. Barton, edit. of Cullen, 375.
Thacher, Disp. 307.
Chapman, Mat. Med. 209.


Podophyllum peltatum. Dr. Burgon, in the Medical Recorder, gives the following account of the medical operation of this plant. "The powdered root," says he, "is extensively employed as a cathartic in bilious complaints, and I am persuaded with as much success as jalap. I have often prescribed it, combined with calomel in the proportion of twenty grains of the former to eight or ten of the latter, and have uniformly been pleased with its effects on my patients. In this dose it is extremely prompt and efficacious. My experience enables me to state, that it is more drastic than jalap, and of course occasions more active catharsis, more severe griping, and makes a more permanent impression on the system. Its operation, in all cases in which I have administered it, is slower than that of jalap, but it leaves the bowels longer in a lax and soluble condition. I once took twenty grains at four o'clock P. M. which gave me no disturbance till next morning, when its operation commenced and produced continual motions all that day and part of the next night together with severe tormina; this was the first dose of Podophyllum I had ever administered; and its effects being so decided, I have since prescribed it in a multitude of cases, and for the most part with similar results. Like most other drastic cathartics it is rendered milder by combining it with calomel, and hence, in most cases, this combination is to be preferred to giving it alone. It is more disagreeable to the stomach than common purgatives, and will oftener occasion emesis. In bilious affections it usually supercedes the necessity of an emetic previous to a cathartic, and hence two desirable effects are produced by one agent.

I was employed one afternoon in a close room in powdering the Rad. podophylli, which, by the next morning, occasioned a most violent inflammation of my right eye and eyelid; it yielded, however, to the antiphlogistic regimen in eight or ten days.

American Medical Botany, 1817-1821, was written by Jacob Bigelow, M. D.