Friday, October 1, 2010

Are May apples edible?

The continuation of my Cautionary Tale [a version of which appears in Edible Manhattan's Summer Issue 2011]:

I can't remember where I first read about May apples. Perhaps on a website, now forgotten, perhaps in Euell Gibbons' Stalking the Wild Asparagus, which was my introduction to wild food gathering, usually known as foraging.

Podophyllum peltatum, May apple, is also called American mandrake. Mandrake - the stuff of magic and legend and dark, stormy nights.

I had kept close watch on a stand of May apples since early in the year year. I waited, and waited, and waited. I was going to eat May apples. I knew that they had to be overripe, not green, or they would still be toxic. I knew that the roots are toxic. So are the leaves of rhubarb, so are green potatoes, so are wilting Amelanchier leaves - we are surrounded by death in plant form.

A May apple bud on April 15th. The season was early.

On April 27th the same buds were now flowers, picture-perfect. April apples. Usually only one per two leaves. Fewer if there is little sun.

On June 24th the fruits were round, green and impenetrably hard.

Above, these are fruits grown from the flowers pictured above. The life of the May apple is a sea green one.

By the end of June the May apple foliage was beginning to be spotty and the leaves were thinking about collapsing, all good signs. Summer dormancy was almost upon them when the green fruit would lie on the ground, still attached to the umbilical stem, and ripen. If animals didn't eat them, first.

9 July, and a promising yellow had overtaken the pale green. But the fruit was still solidly hard. I waited.

At last the day came when I spied some fruit on the leaf litter, whose mottled edges promised the degree of ripeness I'd been waiting for. I picked two, put them in my bag, and forgot about them for a week.  Then one night while Vincent was at work I rooted in my bag for my notebook, and smelled a heavenly, tropical scent. The time had come. The Frenchie does not approve of my promiscuous grazing habits, so I chose the route of non confrontation. Eat it while he's gone.

It smelled of my favorite passion fruit, and a little like pineapple. The peel came off easily, the aroma increased. My mouth watered. For a split second I considered the seeds, pondering the wisdom of swallowing them, but reasoned that they would just go straight through me. I don't crunch seeds, and so there was no danger of releasing anything unwanted. Anyway, the jelly-like pulp and the seeds were inseparable, and Mr Brill's book had simply advised, 'Enjoy when ripe.'

So I did, two bites and a brief mulling over the tongue and down it all went. It was delicious. Sweet, slightly astringent, and flavored more like sweet pineapple with guava than the passion fruit. Yum.

After warning of the root's toxicity, Euell Gibbon writes: 'The flavor of May apple, while agreeable to most people, is not easily described. When I eat a thoroughly ripe May apple, I am reminded of several tropical fruits, the guava, the passion fruit and the soursop, but I can't honestly say that it tastes like any of them.'

Etc. etc. etc. Clearly, he had eaten them.

Mr Brill - Warnings about root and raw fruit, then, 'Peel the tough skin and enjoy it raw or cooked.'

Clear enough.

I could still taste the fruit in my mouth, but I started to think. Seeds. Nobody mentions seeds. So I went to the Web. I didn't find anything good. Seeds are toxic, poisonous, rumored to be deadly. I emailed Ellen, a foraging friend, and I called Mr Brill. Who told me to call a doctor: 'No one eats the seeds.'

Uh....what about 'enjoy it raw and cooked???'

I hung up.

In my Inbox the Ellen told me: The seeds are supposed to be poisonous.  Don't know how serious this is, probably better that you didn't chew.  I'll start checking my references.  Don't freak out.

It was now or never.

I have a great respect for bulimics. Those who love to eat but loathe their bodies more, and who discipline themselves to lose it all, daily. What a terrible life.What focus.

I checked my Inbox one last time: X doesn't know how toxic and neither do I.  I've emailed Sam Thayer but he's not a constant online presence, so I may not get an answer right away. I think it may be quantity related and if you only swallowed a few, you'll be ok.  It's definitely NOT like Amanita muscaria where you feel fine and then die.  You may have a little stomach upset or nothing at all.


The May apple was much more pleasant going down than coming up but I bear it no ill will. Mr Brill's words on the phone were still ringing in my ears. And I could not imagine the Frenchie's wrath and pain if he'd found me in foetal position after eating Another Strange Thing.

So there it is, my cautionary tale. Trust no one. Research backwards.

I think of that May apple with nothing less than affection, and I would like  to try again. I would also like authors to know their subject thoroughly and to eb very careful about what they commit to print. And the Web - it is a morass of misnofation and some very god stuff.  Don't give me 'apparently toxic.' 'Rumoured to be toxic.' 'Possibly toxic.' Commit!

Update, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015: Having eaten several May apples every season - pulp,  seeds and all (not the skin, because I do not like the texture), I am fine.

They are delicious, tropical things. And now they stay down.


  1. You might want to keep this number handy:
    For a poison emergency in the U.S. call 1-800-222-1222 American Association of Poison Control Centers

  2. Oh my goodness! You are so brave!

  3. Thanks for this entry! I'm a foraging noob and am not yet brave enough to try the wild plants with part-time poisonous parts. I'll get there someday! Your entry was inspiring and educational. I hope you don't mind - but I reacted to and linked your entry to my own blog The Ditzy Druid. Let me know if you want me to take the entry down or remove the photo - I credited you for it, btw. :)

  4. Whoah, that's a scary emoti-parenthesis.

    How bout ;)

  5. This is my third time trying to leave comment. If this doesn't work I'm going to make blogspot eat may apples.

    I laughed out and shook my head as I read this.

    You are a nutter, but you're our nutter.

    Vince is not to leave you alone again, or if he does you'll have to be locked in the closet with the cat.

    xo jane

  6. I was pretty much with you until the part about "...not as good coming up..."
    I wonder what is in the seeds? Maybe they have to be crushed (by chewing)or dissolved (stomach acid) to release their toxins. I've swallowed any number of plum stones with no ill effects.
    And I now remove capsicum seeds as I'm told they are carcinogenic.
    You'd have been great on a voyage of exploration!

  7. I don't have any experience with May apples, unfortunately, but I loved reading your account. Hope you are all right--and fully recovered.

  8. Back from Greece last night and I still have that jar of Mayapple Jelly with your name on it!

  9. Ja well, sorry the story was a bit graphic, but I thought it worth the re-telling :-)

    Melanie, no need, but thank you - I can throw up faster than I can wait for an ambulance, so to's also cheaper!

    Meems, that is diplomatic of you, thank you.

    Grey - that's fine, thank you...good luck with your foraging.

    Frank, I'm not a nut, I'm a seed.

    jane - thank you for persisting! But Vince already locks me in the closet with the cat, and I HATE pellets.

    Dinah - seeds, I swallow all sorts of pips and seeds, but are plums poisonous? Their kernels (like the cyanide of apricots?)...plum pips, I've just thought about that. They're BIG. Weirdo.

    Ava - I look forward to your account next year :-)

    Ellen - YUM!

  10. I think the mystery plant in the back acreage is may apple....the fruit is still green....there are deer. It may not last long enough to get ripe for me. And if it does....I will try to remember the bit about the seeds.
    What should you do? Boil them and strain them??? If the pulp sticks so tightly to the seeds, how do you get it off raw and still have a nibble left?

  11. Hi anonymous - I've subsequently spoken to foragers who've eaten the whole fruit (without skin) and been fine, with no ill effects whatsoever. I am inclined to swallow my next May apple. My point exactly about separating seeds from pulp!!! Too much trouble, for the fresh fruit. It make sense if you are making a batch of jelly, like my friend Ellen. The jelly was delicious. I hope you have May apples back there - not every plant will make a fruit. And they must be soft to be eaten. I can't wait to try again!

  12. Many years ago living on a farm in West Virginia, we would gather may apples. My Father would use them to make may apple brandy. The brandy was always aged for two years before it was consumed. Many people form miles around came to the farm to purchase some. No one ever became ill from drinking the brandy.

  13. I loved your story. It made me smile and wonder if anyone has done testing on those seeds to find out what the poison is. I am very curious and may do it myself as I have a patch of may apple growing in my garden. I have yet to harvest any of the fruit but I notice this year there are a few for the first time ever in 14 years. I don't think there are enough to make jelly though. Maybe next year.

  14. Hi Marie,
    I recently saw my first May Apple in bloom and had no clue what it was. I took a picture and sent it to a friend who leads forest walks in PA - she identified it and also warned me that the fruit is edible and all else on the plant is toxic. I was planning on going back and try to find a ripe one later in the year...till I read your experience with the May Apple. I guess I will pass on it for now. :-) But I did enjoy reading this blog. Did you try to eat it again since then? With or without seeds?

    1. I've eaten them since, swallowed the seeds (but did not crunch them up)and no issues.

      They must be soft before they can be eaten...

  15. The fruit can be eaten in small amounts. But in large amounts it becomes toxic. Roots and foilage are also poisonous if eaten. However, early residents and some of the old timers here still use the juices topically for warts, stings, etc.

    1. Can you cite a source for the "toxic in large amounts".

      Foraging is tricky because so many statements are handed down as fact, without any real investigation. It is good to err on the side of caution, of course...

  16. Apple Seeds Are Toxic They Have Stricknine in them But it takes a cup or more

  17. first off it the spelling would be strychnine and secondly it contains podophyllotoxin. I swallowed one whole on a dare at a party in the woods as an adolescent. None of us knowing what it was. I was and still am completely fine. search may apple on wikipidia for all the info you could want medicinal purposes included.

    1. You are referring to commenter above? Who was talking about apple seeds, for some reason. I would not recommend Wiki-anything as a reference source for poisonous and edible plants.

  18. I put whole ones in with my smoothies seeds, skin etc and never have issues

  19. This is the first time in over 20 years that mayapple fruits have matured to ripeness in my area of upstate NY. I have eaten them in the past' one at a time' since they are a rare treat. This year I have eaten four & I'm waiting for a fifth to fully ripen. I eat skin along with the fruit, with no ill effects. I separate seeds from the jelly like core in my mouth ( like removing grape pips ), but not because I don't want to swallow them. I'm going to plant those seeds in my SHAPE garden. I already have mayapples growing there, from roots I transplanted elsewhere on my property. I love the shape of the mayapple plant, I think the plant, flower, & fruits are all beautiful. About 8 years ago, I purchased mayapple seeds in a commercial seed packet in the state of Kentucky. I planted them but nothing came up, seed viability may be poor. If mayapples were extremely toxic, no commercial seed company would want the liability involved.
    Anyone like to share their mayapple jelly or brandy recipes? Maybe someday I will get a bumper crop.

  20. when i was a kid had a friend that eat may apples called him crazy but he would only eat 3 at a time seeds skin and all

  21. we ate them when we were kids. our gram showed us how. wait til golden and tinged with brown. looking like ripe bananna. skin, seeds and all. very good.

  22. Ate several this year, seeds and all. Tasted great and zero after effects.

  23. It cannot be mere coincidence that my great-grandparents and grandparents lived to 100+ years old and ate fruits and wild plants and hunted fresh meat along with what they grew themselves; then came all this fake food, Genetically Modified, hybrid and synthetic. I have acres of May Apples, and now I know they can be enjoyed after a great deal if research - info lost in favor of Microwave Dinners!

  24. This was an excellent article, thank you

  25. I was introduced to the May Apple as a child by a State Park employee during a tour. I still remember the looks she got when she told us what 'could' happen should we eat or touch the plant and then somehow ingest any part that rubbed off on our hands. Didn't sound pleasant. Then, again, our ancestors ate them.

  26. I ate some. You have to wait until they are yellow or they are bitter. I ate a green one and it wasn't very good. I thought one tasted like a combination of grape and strawberry and another tasted like grape soda.

  27. Can they finish ripening off the plant? I ask because I've picked some for the first time and they seem mainly to be not green (mostly pale yellow with a little green at the top) and I'm waiting and hoping they turn more yellow. In my area the plants are all dying back and many of the ones that had fruit no longer have it (fell off and or eaten by animals)

    1. They can, but must be quite mature for it to be successful.

  28. Hi! I'm going to be writing about May apples on my blog on September 24, and I am wondering if I can use some of the photos on this blog with credits to you and a link about to your very informative blog. Thanks for considering this! If you're interested in checking out what type of blogging I do before you decide, it's called Summer Setting and can be accessed here: Blessings~

    1. Hi Kathryn - yes, you may, as long as you credit and link back to my blog. Thanks for asking.


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