Mayapple: A Favorite Fruit

Podophyllum peltatum

Mayapple in flower and in fruit

Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) is common in rich woods in southern Michigan. Flowering in the spring, its fruit ripens in the late summer, and then the plants die back for the season. Emerging in early spring, plants resemble small umbrellas on the forest floor. Early leaves are sometimes frost damaged which causes reddish spots in the center of the leaves. Leaves are peltate with the petiole (leaf stalk) attached in the center of a mostly round leaf blade. Plants with single leaves do not flower. Larger two-leaved plants have flowers hidden under the leaves. Mayapple flowers produce no nectar to attract pollinators. I see bumblebee queens gathering pollen from the flowers. Some studies seem to indicate that pollinators are attracted by other nearby woodland flowers then visit Mayapples. I saw one bumblebee visit a Mayapple flower after feeding on Wild Geranium nectar. Fruiting is not needed because colonies reproduce via rhizomes.

Podophyllum peltatum

L-flowering plant                         C-non-flowering plant                    R-reddish plant damaged by frost

All parts of the plant including the seeds are poisonous except for the flesh of the ripe fruits. Another common name is Wild Mandrake eluding to its poisonous nature. A friend became ill after eating ripe fruit so use caution if you experiment with eating this plant. Whenever I eat a new species of wild food I always keep an uncooked sample and eat only a small amount. You can have an allergic response to a plant other people safely eat. I have found ripe fruits only three times in my life. Twice, I found single ripe fruits  and only once did I find enough to make jam. Raccoons followed us through the colony and climbed into the basket as I carried it picking fruit. Fruits have a sweet citrus flavor.

Podophyllum peltatum

L- typical Mayapple flower                 C & R-doubled flower showing extra parts

I found a colony along the Red Cedar River on the campus of Michigan State University with multiple carpels (forma polycarpum) and additional flower parts. Beal Botanical Garden’s collection manager gathered a few plants for their garden and gave me a single non-flowering plant. Seventeen years later they form a stand of 80 stems in my woodland garden. They have never set fruit.

Allodus podophylli

Mayapple Rust on upper and lower sides of leaf

A bright orange rust, Mayapple Rust (Allodus podophylli) occurs on Mayapples. This is the only species of rust reported from Mayapple. It disfigures the plants but normally causes no harm. I find the aeciospores attractive when magnified. Mayapple Rust requires no alternate host and completes its lifecycle on the Mayapple. This rust was placed in the artificial genus Puccinia until recent studies placed it in the long disused genus Allodus.

Allodus podophylli

Aeciospores of Mayapple rust

Now is the time to look for ripe Mayapples. Get out in a rich woods in southern Michigan and see what you find. It might not be a Mayapple but it’s always fun just to look.


Copyright 2017 by Donald Drife

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Michigan Morels

Morchella esculenta

Common Morel in natural habitat

First, do not identify morels solely from information on this blog. It is best to learn them from an experienced collector of mushrooms or by going to one of the Morel festivals. Two good guides are A Morel Hunter’s Companion: A Guide to True and False Morels,” by Nancy Smith Weber and James A. Weber. It is a Thunder Bay Press publication. Also, May is Morel Month in Michigan by Heather Hallen, Tom Volk, and Gerard Adams is a Michigan State Extension Publication available on line.

As with any wild food, the first time you eat it you should keep an uncooked sample. Some people are allergic to an otherwise non-poisonous plant. Peanuts are not poisonous but many people cannot eat them. Caution is always needed when eating wild foods. Never eat a raw wild mushroom.

True Morels have a hollow stem and cap. The cap is pitted and the lower edge is joined to the stem in most species. In Half-free Morels the stem attaches to the cap about a third of the way up the cap.

False Morels often have a stem that is filled with fine cotton-like structures. The stem and cap join at the top. False Morels have wrinkled caps. They are poisonous.

Michigan has three main true morel species. Common Morel, Yellow Morel and Gray Morel are all common names for Morchella esculenta. This might be a complex composed of several species.  M. crassipes is sometimes split from it. See the webpage Morels of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I do not have enough experience with this species to have an opinion as to its validity. I found Common Morel last weekend (May 9th) northeast of Grayling, Michigan. It was in an Aspen stand. This species appears when the White Trillium (Trillium grandiflora) is flowering.

Morchella esculenta

Common Morel in ground, and sectioned showing hollow interior

Common Morel varies in color from a pale, dirty yellow to gray. It is normally 5 to 15cm (2 to 6 inches) tall but much larger individuals are known. Its cap ridges are the same color as the bottom of its pits.

Morchella elata

Black morel

Black Morel (M. elata) normally has a narrow, more pointed cap. Its cap pits are lighter than their ridges, at least when they are mature. I often find Black Morels on higher ground in White Cedar (Thuja) swamps. It must be a location that dries out in the summer. Also I find them under Wild Black Cherries (Prunus serotina).

Morchella semilibera

Half-free Morel

Half-free Morel (M. semilbra) is our smallest true Morel. The other true Morel species have the cap fused with the stem for most of the caps length. Half-free Morels have their caps fused for only the top portion.

Now is the time of year to go looking for morels. Have fun, but be careful. Happy hunting.

Copyright 2015 by Donald Drife

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Blueberry: a Taste of Summer

Vaccinium augustifolium Flowers and Fruit

Low Sweet Blueberry
Flowers and Fruit

Low Sweet Blueberry (Vaccinium augustifolium) is the common species we see in the sandy uplands near Grayling, Michigan. It has clusters of bell-shaped flowers in June and the fruit ripens in July. The bushes are short, less than 3dm [1 foot] tall and it is hard on my back to bend for hours picking berries. Wild blueberries are smaller but sweeter than their domestic cousins.

Vaccinium augustifolium habit

Low Sweet Blueberry

In years when a hard frost occurs during flowering time or the spring is too dry blueberries yield little if any fruit. Some years the only plants bearing fruit are at the edges of fields that have tall trees surrounding them and protecting the plants from frost. In a dry year, we sometimes find a few berries on bushes growing in a depression that collects some water. In a good berry year, there are acres of fruiting plants. Low Sweet Blueberries are deep-rooted and survive wildfires. The best picking is often two to five years after a burn. Competing plants are gone, sunlight reaches the plants, and the sterile sand is enriched.

Vaccinium augustifolium Fruit showing variations

Low Sweet Blueberry Fruit showing color variations

Vaccinium augustifolium in pail showing fruit color variations

Low Sweet Blueberries in pail showing fruit color variations

Low Sweet Blueberries form a variable species complex. Berries are blue with a solid glaucous bloom, or purple with a gray striped bloom, or shiny black. The leaves are green or glaucous green. The fruit types do not breed true from seed. Shiny black fruit can produce offspring with blue fruit. The extreme plants are distinctive and have been named as separate species or varieties of V. augustifolium but appear to me to be only forms. I know of no pure stands containing only one fruit type. It seems best to treat this as a single variable species.

Vaccinium augustifolium Undersides of leaves

Low Sweet Blueberry Undersides of leaves

Difficulties in classifying this species however do not distract from my pleasure of eating the fruit. A handful of blueberries eaten on a hike is a treat. Blueberry pancakes and pies are a highpoint of my summer. My family has a scale for rating the quality of the blueberry crop. A bad year is when less than a handful is found. Next is a pancake year (1 cup full), a pie year (4 cups), and then an abundant year. In an abundant year, such as this year, you pick enough for pancakes, pies, and to freeze a few for a rare winter treat.

Blueberry Pancakes and Pie

Blueberry Pancakes and Pie

The short bushes are hard to pick from but it is worth the work. Get out while the picking is still good but watch out for bears.
Copyright 2014 by Donald Drife

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Michigan’s Wild Strawberries


Fragaria vesca Fragaria virginiana  Woodland and Wild Strawberry

Woodland-l-and-Wild-r- Strawberry flowers

Michigan has two species of native Strawberries. The Wild Strawberry (Fragaria virginiana) and Woodland Strawberry (F. vesca). If you have never eaten a native Strawberry you simply have not experienced life. The fruit is about 6mm (1/4 inch) long and all the flavor of a large commercial Strawberry is packed into its small size. I found a handful of each species last weekend near Grayling. Michigan. Wild Strawberries are sweeter and juicer than the Woodland Strawberry but I will eat both.

Fragaria vesca Fragaria virginiana  Woodland and Wild Strawberry

Woodland-l-and-Wild-r- Strawberry Fruit

The two species normally are easy to tell apart. Wild Strawberries have more or less spherical fruit. The strawberry fruit is called a fruiting receptacle and this species’ seeds are on the surface of the fruit in tiny depressions. Fruiting Wild Strawberries have their fruit held beneath the leaves. The terminal tooth on the bluish-green leaflets is smaller than the adjoining teeth.

Fragaria virginiana Wild Strawberry Fruit

Wild Strawberry Fruit

Woodland Strawberries have elongate fruit and its seeds stick-out from the surface of the fruit. Their fruit is held above the leaves. The terminal tooth on the bright green leaflets is the same size as the adjoining teeth.

Fragaria vesca   Woodland Strawberry Fruit

Woodland Strawberry Fruit

Wild Strawberries grow in many habitats. When they are found in old orchards or under Wild Black Cherry (Prunus serotina) trees, Grape Ferns (Botrychium spp.) often grow with them. Wild Strawberries tend to be semi-evergreen. Sometimes they still possess last year’s leaves when the plants flower in the spring.

Get out and look for strawberries along the edges of abandoned farm fields. They are ripe now and worth the time it takes to find, pick, and eat them.
Copyright 2014 by Donald Drife

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Michigan’s Wild-banana

Asimina triloba Pawpaw leaves and fruit

Pawpaw leaves and fruit

Pawpaw or Wild-banana or American Custard-apple (Asimina triloba) occurs in the southern third of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. We are at the northern edge of its range. It is Michigan’s only member of the largely tropical Custard-apple Family (Annonaceae).

Pawpaw is a shrub or small tree that can bear fruit on plants as little as a meter (3 feet) tall. In Michigan, they normally grow along rivers in floodplains but also occur in rich deciduous forests and swamps.

Asimina triloba Pawpaw flowers

Pawpaw flowers

The dark maroon flowers, with three long outer petals and three much shorter inner petals, appear before the leaves expand, and look quite tropical to me. Their foul smell attracts flies that pollinate them.

The leaves are alternate, broadest near the tip and 15 to 30 cm (6 to 12 inches) long.

Asimina triloba Pawpaw fruit

Pawpaw fruit

Pawpaw has the largest fruit of any native Michigan plant, up to 13 cm (5 inches) long and 2cm (1 inch) thick. It is a large berry containing four to twelve flattened black seeds about the size of a lima bean. The flesh is edible, my favorite wild fruit to eat, although I have friends who hate the taste. The fruiting season is short. Raccoons love them, and have climbed into baskets of Pawpaws as I was carrying them. The picking technique I use is stand to one side of a fruit cluster (so the falling fruit does not hit me), gently shake a small tree and catch the falling fruit. I pick them when they are slightly green but they ripen in a few days.

Asimina triloba Pawpaw fruit

Pawpaw fruit

The Pawpaw Foundation is developing commercial cultivars. Local farmers’ markets sometimes have them for sale. My preference is to eat them raw or cooked into a custard or Pawpaw bread. See the Foundation’s website for recipes.

Now is the time to pick Pawpaws. Get out and explore a river floodplain and look for Pawpaws with their ripe fruit. Only one of these large berries is needed to provide a sample of their unique taste.
Copyright 2013 by Donald Drife

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