Immature fruits as well as the vegetative structures of Mayapple are poisonous. As with many drugs, there is a fine line between poison and effective medicinal use. American Indians ate the ripe fruits and used a number of medicinal Mayapple preparations. The list of uses by American Indian include treatments for rheumatism, as a laxative as well as treatment for diarrhea, ulcers, sores, liver and bile problems, hemorrhoids, headaches, diuretic, whooping cough, cholera, pneumonia, problems of male and female reproductive tracts, as a purgative, and for anthelminthic (worming) purposes. Reportedly, individuals of some Indian tribes even used rhizomes of this plant to commit suicide.
In the 1800s and early 1900s, Mayapple extract was used as an active ingredient in Carter’s Little Liver Pills; today, it is used as an extract called “Podophyllin” to remove genital warts. Drugs derived from the rhizome are being used in Europe, and are being tested in this country to treat forms of cancer such as cancer of the testes, two forms of lung cancer, Kaposi sarcoma, and some forms of leukemia. It also has been used to treat syphilis. There is some evidence that American Indians used this plant also to treat forms of cancer such as ovarian and skin cancer. Modern research shows evidence of Mayapple extracts that inhibit cell division, thus blocking new growth of tumors.
Information courtesy of the Prince William Wildflower Society.
Note: The Mayapple is also known as the American Mandrake. In spite of its similar name, it is not the same species as the “mandrake” in the Harry Potter movies; American users of the Mayapple have no need to fear the results shown there. Neither is it the same species featured in Go and Catch a Falling Star by John Donne (1633).