Gateway to the Classics: Wild-Flower Study by Anna Botsford Comstock
Wild-Flower Study by  Anna Botsford Comstock

The May Apple, or Mandrake

Teacher's Story

dropcap image HIS is a study of parasols and, therefore, of perennial interest to the little girls who use the small ones for their dolls, and with many airs and graces hold the large ones above their own heads. And when this diversion palls, they make mandarin dolls of these fascinating plants. This is easily done by taking one of the small plant umbrellas and tying with a grass-sash all but two of the lobes closely around the stem, thus making a dress, the lobes left out being cut in proper shape for flowing sleeves; then for a head some other flower is robbed of its flower bud, which is put into place and surmounted with a clover leaflet hat, and a pin is then thrust through hat, head and neck into the stem of the dressed plant; the whole is properly finished by placing a small umbrella above the little green mandarin.

The mandrakes grow in open places where there is sun, and yet not too much of it; they like plenty of moisture, and grow luxuriantly in open glades or in meadows or pastures bordering woodlands, and they especially rejoice in the fence-corners, along roadsides. The first lesson of all should be how nature folds her little umbrellas. Study the plants when they first put their heads above ground, each parasol wrapped in its case, and note how similarly to a real umbrella it is folded around its stem. Later, after the umbrellas are fairly spread, they afford a most interesting study in varieties of form and size. Some of the parasols have only four lobes while others have many more. I have found them with as many as nine, although the botanies declare seven to be the normal number. One of the special joys afforded by nature-study is finding things different from the descriptions of them in the books.

One of these little parasols is a worthy object for careful observation. Its stem is stout and solid, and at its base may be seen the umbrella-case, now discarded like other umbrella-cases; the stem is pink wherever the sun touches it, but close up under the leaves it is likely to be green; it ends at the middle of the parasol by sending out strong, pale green, fuzzy ribs into each lobe. The lobes are narrow toward the stem but broad at the outer edge, each lobe being sparsely toothed on its outer margins and with a deep, smooth notch at the center. From the ribs of each lobe extend other ribs, an arrangement quite different from that we find in cloth umbrellas. The lobes of the mandrake parasol are divided almost to the center, and it is therefore evident that it is much better fitted for protection from the sun than from the rain. The parasol is a beautiful shining green on the upper side, and has a pale green lining that feels somewhat woolly.


The blossom of the May apple.

In examining any patch of May apples, we find that many of the parasols are double; the secret of this is, that the mandrake baby needs two parasols to shield it from the sun; one of these twin parasols is always larger than the other and evidently belongs to the main stem, since its stem is stouter, and it is likely to have seven lobes while the smaller one may have but five. However, the number of lobes varies. Neither of these double parasols has its ribs extending out toward the other, and thus interfering; instead of having their "sticks" at the center of the parasol, they are at the side next each other, exactly as if the original single stem had been split and the whole parasol had been torn in twain.

But of greatest interest is the blossom-baby carried under this double parasol. At first it is a little, elongate, green ball on a rather stiff little stem, which droops because it wants to and not because it has to, and which arises just where the two branches fork. One of the strange things about this precocious baby-bud is, that when the plant is just coming from the ground, the bud pushes its head out from between the two folded parasols, and takes a look at the world before it retires under its green sunshade. As the bud unfolds, it looks as if it had three green sepals, each keeping its cup form and soon falling off, as a little girl drops her hood on a warm day; but each of these sepals, if examined, will be found to be two instead of one; the outer is the outside of the green hood while the inner is a soft, whitish membrane,

"A rabbit skin,

To wrap the Baby Bunting in."

As the greenish white petals spread out, they disclose a triangular mass of yellow stamens grouped about the big seed-box, each side of the triangle being opposite one of the inner petals. After the flower is fully open, the stamens spread and each anther is easily seen to be grooved, and each edge of the groove opens for the whole of its length; but because of its shape and position, it lets the pollen fall away from the pistil instead of toward it; nor do the tips of the anthers reach the waxy, white, ruffled stigma. There is no nectar in this flower; but the big queen bumblebee likes the pollen for her new nest, and she "bumbles" around in the flower while getting her load, so that she becomes well dusted with the pollen, and thus carries it from flower to flower. But the whole story of the pollen carriers of the May apple is, as yet, untold; and any child who is willing to give time and attention to discovering the different insects which visit this flower, may give to the world valuable and, as yet, unknown facts. It is said that a white moth is often found hanging to the flowers, but it is difficult to understand why the moth should be there if the flower does not have any nectar.

The seed-vessel at the center of the flower is large and chunky, and, although crowned with its ruffled stigma, looks as if it were surely going to "grow up" into a May apple. There are usually six wide, white, rounded petals, three on the outside and three on the inside; but sometimes there are as many as nine. There are usually twice as many stamens as petals, but I have often found thirteen stamens, which is not twice any possible number of petals. The petals soon fall, and, safely hidden from the eyes of enemies, the green fruit—which is a berry instead of an apple—has nothing to do but gather sweetness, until in July it is as juicy and luscious to the thirsty child as if it were the fruit of the gods. It is about two inches long, a rich yellow in color, and is sometimes called the "wild lemon," although it is not sour. It is also called the hog-apple because the clever swine of the South know how to find it, despite its parasol. Riley thus celebrates this fruit:

"And will any poet sing of a lusher, richer thing,

Than a ripe May apple, rolled like a pulpy lump of gold

Under thumb and finger tips; and poured molten through the lips?"

If the May apple itself is edible, certainly its root is not, except when given by physicians as a medicine, for it is quite poisonous when eaten. When we see plants growing in colonies or patches, it usually means that very interesting things are going on underground beneath them, and the mandrake is no exception to this. Each plant has a running underground stem, straight and brown and fairly smooth; at intervals of a few inches, there are attached to it rosettes of stout, white roots, which divide into tiny, crooked rootlets. There is a large rosette of these roots under the plant we are studying, and we can always find a rosette of them under the place where the plant stood last year. Beneath the present plant we can find the bud from which will grow the root-stem for the coming year. The working out of the branching and the peculiarities of these root-stems, is an excellent lesson in this peculiar and interesting kind of plant reproduction.

Lesson CXXIV

The Mandrake

Leading thought—These interesting plants grow in colonies because of the spreading of their underground stems. Their odor and poisonous qualities protect them from being eaten by animals, and their fruit is well hidden by its green parasol until it is ripe.

Method—Begin the study just as the mandrakes are thrusting their heads up through the soil in April, and continue the work at intervals until the fruit is ripe.


1. How do the mandrakes look when they first appear above the ground? How are the little umbrellas folded in their cases? What do the cases look like? How can you tell from the first, the plants which are to bear the flowers and fruit?

2. Study a patch of mandrakes, and see how many varieties of parasols you can find. Do they all have the same number of main ribs and lobes? How many lobes do most of them have? Are there more single or double parasols in the patch?

3. Take a single plant and study it carefully. What sort of stem has it? Can you find at its base the old umbrella case? How high is the stem? What is its color at the bottom and at the top? How many ribs does it divide into at the top? Are these ribs as smooth as the stem? How does the parasol lining differ from its outside in color and feeling?

4. Study the parasol lobes. What is their general shape? Are they all notched at the wide end? How close to the stem does the division between them extend? Do you not think they are better fitted for keeping off the sun than the rain?

5. Take one of the double parasols. Where is the flower bud to be found? How is it protected from the sun? Does the stem divide equally on each side of it or is one part larger than the other? Are the twin parasols of the same size? How many lobes has each? What are the chief differences in shape between one of these twin parasols and one of the parasols which has no flower bud?

6. How does the flower bud look? Does it droop because its stem is weak? What happens to the green hood or sepals when the flower opens? Can you find six sepals in the hood?

7. Does the open flower bow downward? As the flower opens, what is the shape of the group of stamens at the center? Are there the same number of white, waxy petals in all the flowers? Are there always about twice as many stamens as petals? How do the anthers open to shed the pollen? Do they let the pollen fall away from the ruffled stigma of the "fat" little seed box at the center of the flower?

8. Does the flower have a strong odor? Does not the plant itself give off this odor? Do you think it is pleasant? Do the cattle eat the mandrake when it is in pastures?

9. What insects do you find visiting the mandrake flowers?

10. Do you like the May apple? When is it ripe? Cut a fruit across and see how the seeds are arranged.

11. Where are mandrakes found? Do they always grow in patches? Dig up a few plants and find why this is so.

12. Describe the underground stem. Can you find where the last year's plant grew? How are the roots arranged upon the stem? Can you see places which will produce the stem for next year's growth? How does the underground stem differ in appearance from the true roots? Why must we not taste of the mandrake root?

13. In late July, visit the mandrake patch again. Are there any umbrellas now? What is left of the plants? Look at the underground stems again and see if there are new growths, and if they are larger and stored with food for next year's plants.

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