Podophyllum peltatum L. —May apple; mandrake
FAMILY: Berberidaceae—the Barberry Family (see Caulophyllum)
PHENOLOGY: Mandrake flowers in mid-spring, often during May.
DISTRIBUTION: Podophyllum is found in open clearings in moist woods and along road banks as a migrant from adjacent wood lots. It is also encountered in wet or damp meadows, open fields, and pastures.
PLANT CHARACTERISTICS: Podophyllum can be recognized by sepals: 6, falling early; petals: 6-9, white, 1-2 cm long; stamens: twice as many as the petals; ovary: oval, with a large sessile stigma; fruit: yellow when ripe, 4-5 cm, fleshy pulp edible, many-seeded; plants: in colonies; perennial from a rhizome; the flowering stem with two, umbrella-shaped leaves and a short-peduncled, solitary flower in the axil.
POISONOUS PARTS: The herbage, rootstock, and seeds are poisonous.
SYMPTOMS: In humans and livestock symptoms vary and generally involve severe gastroenteritis, diarrhea, vomiting, and violent catharsis.
POISONOUS PRINCIPLES: Podophyllin, a resinoid toxin, is a very complex mixture of lignins (including podophylloxin, alpha- and beta- peltatins) and flavonols Sixteen physiologically active, well-characterized compounds have been isolated in podophyllin. Chemical analysis reveals 3-6% resin and 0.2 – 1.0% podophyllotoxin, picropodophyllin, quercetin, and peltatins.
CONFUSED TAXA: May apples are well known elements of our spring flora. No other plant has umbrellalike leaves and white flowers measuring 5 cm in diameter. It is not readily confused with any other plant.
SPECIES OF ANIMALS AFFECTED: Humans, especially adults, have been poisoned from the misuse of medicinal preparations. The fruits, the least toxic part of the plant, have caused poisoning in children. The principal effect is violent diarrhea and vomiting. Where rhizomes are dried and processed at commercial operations, the handlers often show severe conjunctivitis, keratitis, and ulcerative lesions. As little as 5 grains of podophyllotoxin resin can cause death in humans. A cow is known to have been poisoned in Ontario. The animal displayed diarrhea, salivation, anorexia, lacrimation, and excitement; regions of the face and mouth were swollen and the mucosa congested. Other livestock reported poisoned from May apple or mandrake are hogs and sheep.
TREATMENT: (11a)(b); (26); (1); (3)
OF INTEREST: Preparations from mandake root are commercially available in health food stores. This plant has enjoyed a favored place in homeopathic medicine. Extracts have been used to treat condyloma acuminatum, a type of venereal wart. Prescription preparations still contain podophyllin. Podophyllotoxin is a mitotic poison that kills embryos selectively and is (questionably) teratogenic for surviving fetuses. For this reason pregnant women should avoid the extract of the rootstock. As a mitotic poison, podophyllin and related compounds show tumor-damaging activity and offer some promise in cancer research. Podophyllum resin is extremely caustic to the skin and mucous membranes; the resin dust inflames the eyes. It also has been used internally as a purgative in veterinary science.