Podophyllum peltatum, the Mayapple or American mandrake, is a common woodland plant throughout Canada and the eastern United States. It grows about eight to twelve inches tall from a thick rhizome, and has one or two deeply lobed leaves that may be circular or vaguely semicircular. Everything but the pulp of the ripe fruit is quite poisonous: the roots can kill easily, and the leaves and seeds can cause illness. When there is one leaf, the plant does not flower and the leaf is a single circle eight to ten inches in diameter, with the stem in the center like an umbrella. When there are two leaves, the stem branches a few inches above the ground and each branch bears a semicircular leaf a bit smaller than the single ones, with the stem closer to the straight side than the center. In May, the branched plants bloom, bearing a single white, fragrant, waxy flower at the junction between the stems. By September, this flower will have given way to a pale yellow, oval-shaped berry, and the leaves will have fallen off. The berry is one and one-half to two inches long and about an inch wide, which is ridiculously huge for such a small plant, so the plant will often topple over and be inconspicuous by the time the fruit is fully ripe.

By now you may be wondering why I've included so much detail. The reason is: You can eat those berries. And, they are good. The seeds are poisonous like the rest of the plant, but you can avoid them by spitting them out or pushing the pulpy fruit through a colander or sieve. The fruit is sweet, with a distinctly tropical taste and a nice bite of acid. Other than aggregate berries, persimmons, and the occasional wild apple, no other wild fruit is as tasty. (The aforementioned fruits are extremely variable in quality, so I would say that mayapple is the most reliably enjoyable wild fruit.) It's easiest to discover the patches in May, when they have leaves and flowers. They like moist shade: a young forest by a stream is good, but so is a strip of woods along a ditch by the side of the road. Just keep an eye out for a bunch of shiny green umbrellas carpeting the ground. Once you know where they are, forget about them until early September and check on them again. Fluff up the leaves a bit if it looks like they've disappeared. If they look like little lemons on twigs, forage away. If they look more like limes, come back in a few days or a week; you don't want to eat these green.

Only about every third plant has two leaves in a given year, so you probably won't find more than a few fruits at a time--the perfect number to enjoy out of hand. (Too many can cause digestive discomfort.) But if you find an old, large patch of them, you might get a whole bunch of mayapple berries in the fall. If you do, you can use the excess in any number of ways. You can put the pulp through a sieve to get the seeds out, and make jelly out of them. (Add pectin.) You can juice them and put the juice in drinks: it adds an exotic note to lemonade, and you can use it instead of lime or lemon juice in some cocktails. (It's fruitier than either, so choose recipes where this is appropriate.)

The toxicity of the seeds means you will never, ever find this interesting fruit in a store, so knowing what it looks like and collecting it in the wild is pretty much the only way to try it. Fortunately, it doesn't have any look-alikes--it's rather bizarrely unmistakable. And it's easy to tell when it's totally ripe and safe to eat: the berry will be completely yellow and the stalk will be dry and brown. It's a fascinating wild fruit that should be more widely recognized.

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