Podophyllum and the Sometime Quixotic Life of Plants in My Garden


Podophyllum x ‘Spotty Dotty’ emerging this Spring.  Remember that these leaves aren’t small.  When they open to their mature size, at about 18″ across,  they’ll absolutely dwarf the vari-colored leaves of your Pelargoniums.

People will often ask me how I grow something, generally when its something they’ve killed, when our conditions, exposure etc, seem pretty close. I’ll shrug, because I may not have done anything special for my plants beyond, hopefully siting them appropriately. Then, there are all of the plants I’ve killed, sometimes repeatedly, that others seem to have success with while doing little more than ‘dropping’ them in the dirt.

I have a bit of a thing for the members of the Podophyllum…and almost everyone I know, who grows them, does so more successfully.  I do have a very ‘happy’ clump of P. pleianthum, and I’ve grown it in Park beds very successfully downtown, but until now I’ve had very little success with any of the others.  Most have lead short, tragic lives….P. delavayi…dead; an unnamed P. delavayi hybrid…dead; P. versipelle…dead; P. x ‘Kaleidoscope’…dead; P.(Sinopodophyllum) hexandrum…dead; P. x ‘Spotty Dotty’…dead; even P. peltatum...dead.  Some of these I’ve killed more than once.  These are usually relatively costly plants to acquire and their loss is more than emotional.  Sometimes I’ve grown them on in their pots for a year before I’ve thrown them into my garden to their deaths.  I’ve lost several other plants from the Barberry family as well, having consistent success only with the shrub forming species and Epimedium spp..  I’ve lost both NW species of Vancouveria as well as Achlys triphylla, one of my favorite ground covers, all of which I’ve grown successfully when I worked in Parks. These shouldn’t be hard.  I’ve grown quite a few different Epimedium spp. and varieties at home and several in Parks, all of which have been consistent and dependable performers.  For a long time, my failures with Podophyllum and assorted woodlanders,  was an embarrassment.  I couldn’t figure out why I kept losing them.  I have a hard time with many Himalayan plants in my garden and a lot of woodlanders in general, I think because it may just get too soggy over the winter.  They’ve taught me to shrug when they fail to emerge in spring.

Epimedium g. Lilafee4362

A cluster of flowers on Epimedium x ‘Lilifee’

My soil is fairly heavy, Willamette Valley Lattourelle Loam, very rich.  I don’t have a long established canopy with a deep organic, humus, layer.  Do I have the correct soil community?  Is something missing such as a mycorrhizal associations?  My soil is a haven for both Root Weevil and Verticillium.  I’ve added a lot of compost over the years, but my soil will stilll crack open dry in the summer, even with, for me, moderate watering.  I’ve applied nematodes for the Root Weevil several times….Every site has its peculiarities and tendencies.  I know these are summer moist plants that like good drainage.  It would seem that most plants, other than bog or wetland plants, come with the caveat, ‘Prefers good drainage’.  I’ve tried Podophyllum wherever I think I might have enough shade and thought about where I’ve seen successful plantings, including my own, elsewhere! I ask people about what they’ve done to be successful…and I still haven’t cracked this problem….


Podophyllum pleianthum. This planting, at Portland’s City Hall, is accompanied by Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’, a hardy Fuchsia and Epimedium. You can see that it ‘likes’ the conditions here and is successfully spreading.  All of the Podophylla erupt quickly in early Spring, launching themselves up with their leaves like collapsed umbrellas, from nodes along their rhizome, leaves that later become quite large in contrast to many or most of their likely neighbors.  Because each stem is determinate that don’t produce an above ground structure that keeps branching and extending.  Their large leaves hover above the ground.

However, last spring I planted out one more P. x ‘Spotty Dotty’ and this spring…it has returned…praise Jesus and all the gods great and small, a little bigger than it was. Why???  It’s in a reworked bed where I tore out a mass of Epimedium ‘Frohnleiten’, yes I did, and planted this with some Saruma henryi, Polygonatum kingianum (orange flower form), Disporum cantoniense ‘Green Giant’, Pyrrosia lingua ‘Variegata’, Astelia nivicola ‘Red Devil’, Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’, a miniature Hosta and a couple other Ferns…everything seems to be coming back.

Like so much else in botany, genus Podophyllum has been restructured leaving the genus with the single species, P. peltatum, the native Mayapple of eastern North America, a region of cold winters and warm/humid/moist summers with nights that remain warm as well.  The others have been separated into other genera.  With the exception of Sinopodophyllum hexandrum, I’ve only seen the others listed under Podophyllum in the trade.  Since the APG reorganization, Dysosma now contains eight of the former Podophyllum, which is comprised of a dozen widely recognized species native to much of China in and south of Shaanxi province, some extending south into Myanmar, Vietnam and even east into Taiwan.  These areas experience a summer monsoon season.  They are residence for Dysosma. delavayi, D. difformis, D. pleiantha and D. versipellis all of which hold their flowers below their leaves where they emerge at the base of leaf petioles on fertile stems and form a red ‘berry’.  Both D. pleiantha and D. versipellis are endemic to China and endangered across their ranges.
Sinopodophyllum is monotypic containing only S. hexandrum, which holds its flowers superior, above its foliage, and is native to the Himalayan regions of China.  This region shares a monsoonal climate with summer weather systems pouring northward up from India that dump heavy rains, day after day, through the season.

Qingling Mtns. contains separate populations of Sinopodophyllum with distinct genetics all relatively small and isolated from each other without much, if any, gene flow between them. There are other populations in Tibet and elsewhere.  All of these have the ability to ‘self’ enabling them to continue on as distinct populations.  Conservation efforts are trying to increase each of these, without ‘muddying’ their genetics and losing their diversity.


Sinopodophyllum hexandrum is listed as endangered across its home range.  It possesses the most potent anti-cancer properties of all of its ‘cousins’, all of which have valuable medicinal uses, which is a major reason it has been over harvested and provides another reason to protect those that remain.  All of the Podophylla contain the neurotoxin, podophyllotoxin.  Each isolated population of species  varies in its effectiveness along with its genetics.  Those in the Qinling Mountains of Shaanxi Province are most notable in this respect, each showing a consistency in its genetics.  This mountain range lies between the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers casting a broad rain shadow to the north and historically served as a barrier to the marauding northern hordes.  In more recent years these mountains have been protected from logging resulting in protection for Sinopodophyllum and many other rare and endemic plants of this botanically rich region.  Habitat destruction and heavy collection, combined with their naturally slow rate of increase, has resulted in them being recognized as endangered.  Under the best of condition these are slow to spread.  Their fruit, containing a high proportion of viable seed tends to drop and stay very near the mother plant and, in the world of pollen, its pollen is relatively heavy and doesn’t move far off site….As primarily self-pollinated, pollinators play a minor role in the life cycle of this species and wind pollination is thought to be a very minor factor.



This picture of Sinopodophyllum hexandrum,(from Wikipedia), shows its unique, for members of the Podophylla, flowering structure, blooming singly, upright atop the leaves.  Here we see the early bloom open before the leaves have fully expanded shortly after having emerged in early Spring…reminiscent of an ‘angel’ with its wings folded, cloak like, around its shoulders.  The flower, here like an open chalice, is open, as they are at mid-day.

Botanists consider S. hexandrum and Podophyllum peltatum to be sisters, that they evolved from the same ancestor through the process known as allopatric speciation, when two populations of the same species become physically isolated from each other.  They are considered to be disjunct, or isolated, separated by distance or physical barrier and unable to share genetic material, one growing on the Asian and  one on the North American continents.  Up until about seven million years ago there was a vast landscape of mesic, forest across much of the northern hemisphere.  Climates changed.  Oceans rose and these populations became isolated, ‘freeing’ them to adapt and evolve independently, uniquely.  Interior regions became more arid and ‘continental’.  (This was going on at the same time, geologically speaking, that the Himalayas were pushing up raising the Tibetan plateau and Himalayas, drastically changing the growing conditions and effecting the future of the species there.)  This also helps explain why Podophyllum peltatum and Diphylleia cymosa, shifted to the eastern, summer/wet portion of the North America and evolved into different species, isolated without the uplifted landscape.  Other genera, like the related Vancouveria, Achlys and Jeffersonia diphylla (I’ve killed this one too), another genus formerly included in Podophyllum, are natives of the moister, shaded areas, generally beneath a deciduous canopy, near the west coast of North America.  These latter species have adapted to the summer dry, mediterranean type climates, along the western edge of the continent.
When we want to grow a plant well we have to look to its origins, its associations and native range, then make some effort to meet their requirements.  The Asian Podophyllum only range as far north as around 34º latitude, the latitude of Los Angeles.  Most of them are south of this.  The “Flora of China” describes the habitat of Sinopodophyllum as: Forests, thickets, wet forest margins, weedy places, meadows; 2200-4300 m. Gansu, Qinghai, Shaanxi, Sichuan, Xizang, Yunnan [E Afghanistan, Bhutan, N India, Kashmir, Nepal, Pakistan]….I garden at just north of 45º, around 11º north of its normal maximum, which translates into around 1,000 miles.  On the west coast, Los Angeles has far from the ideal growing conditions for these, being at sea level, so with considerably warmer summer temps, coupled with a mediterranean, summer/dry climate…which would make Podophyllum a more difficult choice for those gardening there.  The northern shift to Portland, some what ameliorates the fact that I’m gardening at only 100′ elevation…but we still typically get highs in summer well above their normal.  In its native range, several of these species can be found above 10,000′, at least one ranges into the lower elevations of some Tibetan mountains as high as 12,000’+, so the winter cold we experience isn’t a problem, while at the same time Portland is warmer and drier than most Podophylla would prefer in summer.  Where Podophylla naturally occur in high Asian ‘meadows’ they do so with cool temps, so they would fail in open meadow plantings here.  Each species has its own range and genetics which will set its limits differently.  Our wet winters, given that these plants are winter dormant, may cause them to rot, so drainage, slope and the draw of the roots of neighboring, plants still growing in winter, may help.  Of course, these same neighbors may cause Podophyllum to dry out in summer during their active growth period, causing them stress and weakening or killing them outright.  Moisture and its periodicity would seem to be key.
  • Looking for more info on Podophyllum, check out this article by NW plantsman Dan Heims in Pacific Horticulture.
  • As gardeners we are all ‘Johnny come lately’s’ at some point as we learn and grow, new to us, plants.  Check out the wonderful pics of the many and varied leaf forms of Podophyllum species and hybrids posted here on the ‘Outlaw Gardener’s’ blog from his visit to the beautiful display garden at Far Reaches Farm, in idyllic, if you’re a Podophyllum, Port Townsend, WA.
  • If you’re still curious, check out this book, a monograph, The Genus Epimedium and Other Herbaceous Berberidaceae, Willam T. Stearn, Timber Press, 2002.  While ‘technical’, as are all monographs, there is much to glean here in this examination of this group of plants.
  • If your are fortunate enough to have plants that produce fruit and seed, here’s a helpful site that gives you step by step instructions for germinating and growing various of the Podophylla from seed for yourself and friends.
  • The genus Diphylleia includes three species: D. cymosa from eastern North America, D. grayi from Japan, and D. sinensis from China, the latter two are sometimes considered a single species.  These are very closely related to the Podophyllum group, but are believed to have derived from a different lineage.  Interestingly, they share various morphological, structural, traits with them, while their genetics place them separate.

1 thought on “Podophyllum and the Sometime Quixotic Life of Plants in My Garden

  1. Patterson Webster

    In a previous house we had a shady hillside covered with P. peltatum growing naturally. It was stunning in summer, with those broad leaves spreading out. Our children loved peeking under the leaves in spring to find the mayapples.

    Like you, I’ve killed several varieties of Podophyllum since then. Fingers crossed that your ‘Spotty Dotty’ thrives this year and survives into next.



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