(This 896th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on May 25, 2008.)


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May Apple Unbrellas


For nature lovers May is quite simply a wonderful month.


Leaves have finally reappeared in all their green glory and fruit trees are rich in blossom.


Bird migration is in full swing bringing back colorful orioles, rose-breasted grosbeaks, scarlet tanagers and over two dozen intricately patterned warbler species.


Our woodlands are rich with bird calls and our swamplands too are full of sound, in addition to the song of birds, the screeches, barks, twangs and snores of frogs and toads. Not to be outdone, grassland birds also announce their presence.


In response nature lovers have saluted this popular month with the names they have assigned to several of Mother Nature's plants and an insect as well.


One of the first wildflowers a beginner should learn is the May apple or mandrake. Large groups of these green umbrellas are found in open woodlands at this time of year. They stand on the forest floor a foot or so high on upright stems, most topped with a single waxy green leaf whorl.


If you examine closely a group of these plants, however, you will find a few whose stems divide so that they are shaded by two leaf umbrellas. It is usually only these plants that produce a single well hidden blossom with six to nine white petals. Later these blossoms, when pollinated, will produce the yellow, ping pong ball-sized berry that gives the plant its misnomer. I say misnomer because, like real apples, this one does not mature until August or September.


When it is ripe this berry is both aromatic and tasty, but it has a definite laxative effect. Until then, all parts of the plant are poisonous. Even touching the leaves may produce a rash. An early botanist reported that a grief-stricken Huron woman ate unripe May apples to commit suicide.


It is worth noting how this plant's life history enhances its survival. Its poison usually protects it from being eaten until the berry is ripe. Then berry seeds, passed through the digestive tract of a turtle, bird or mammal assisted by its cathartic qualities, are distributed with the animal's scat.


Despite their otherwise poisonous attributes, May apples are a source for drugs used to treat lung and testicular cancer.


Mayflies are harmless insects that appear here for one or two spring days in swarms called blooms. During those brief outbreaks their numbers probably reach billions. They have narrow bodies about an inch long with two tails extending from the end of their abdomen for an additional inch. Their forelegs are long too and are held forward when they alight. Despite their name, these are not flies at all for unlike true flies they have two pairs of wings.


In fact Mayflies belong to an order all their own, Ephemeroptera, a name that means ephemeral wings. Indeed the winged stages of this unusual insect are very brief, only a few dozen hours. They can't even eat for they have no mouths. Their sole function during that period is to mate and the females to lay eggs.


The appearance of these insects in this region is not at all unusual. I recall once driving across the Rainbow Bridge in Niagara Falls in a cloud of Mayflies so dense that the bridge lights appeared dim. It was like driving through a thick fog. Before I could slow down my windshield was covered with squashed insects and I could feel the car begin to lose traction on masses of slippery bodies. At the end of the bridge I had to stop to clear the car windows, yet a short distance from the river no more Mayflies were to be seen. Like area cottagers I have also witnessed windrows of their fetid dead bodies along Lake Erie beaches.


The Canada Mayflower or wild lily-of-the-valley may not be as evident as the May apple or common as the Mayfly, but it too is found in large groups in open woodlands. It is easily identified by its one or two stem-hugging heart-shaped leaves and its delicate upright clusters of tiny white four-petal flowers. By midsummer these stems will bear green berries mottled with brown. A quite different plant, the trailing arbutus, is also occasionally called Mayflower.-- Gerry Rising