Odd-looking yet striking plants, these herbaceous barberry (Berberis) relatives grow from thick underground rhizomes that send up stalks crowned with large, shield-shaped, deeply lobed leaves. Shoots with a single leaf are barren; those with two leaves bear a single, 2-in.-wide flower (set between the leaves) in mid- to late spring. Blossoms are followed by juicy, 2-in. berries; these are edible when fully ripe (poisonous until that stage) but can have a powerful laxative effect. Make attractive, slowly spreading deciduous ground covers for shady areas with rich, moist, woodsy soil.
P. hexandrum. HIMALAYAN MAYAPPLE. From Himalayas, western China. To 11 ft. tall and wide. Dark green, brown-mottled leaves to 10 in. wide are divided into three or five lobes; each lobe is further divided. White or pink flowers are followed by bright red berries.
P. peltatum. MAYAPPLE, WILD MANDRAKE. From eastern North America. To 11 ft. high, 1 ft. wide. New growth pushing up through leaf litter is one of the earliest signs of spring in woodlands. Foliage is bronze when new; mature leaves are shiny dark green, to 1 ft. wide, divided into five to nine lobes. White flowers are followed by bright yellow berries. Spreads fairly fast in its preferred rich, moist soil. Dies back completely in late summer. 'Kaleidoscope', of hybrid origin, has octagonal leaves dramatically marked with creamy silver and bronze.
P. pleianthum (Dysoma pleiantha). CHINESE MAYAPPLE. From central and southeastern China and Taiwan. To 12 ft. high, 1 ft. wide. Large (1216 in. wide), glossy green, umbrella- like leaves divided into shallow lobes. Clusters of unusual-smelling, bell-shaped, maroon flowers appear in spring but are mostly concealed by the leaves. Yellow or red fruit follows blossoms. Looks good until the first frost in fall.
P. versipelle. CHINESE MAYAPPLE. From China. Large, glossy, green, lobed leaves are up to 18 in. wide and can reach up to 3 ft. high. Clusters of deep maroon, meaty-smelling flowers are followed by bright red, berrylike fruit. Stays attractive until the first frost. 'Spotty Dotty' is lower growing, has light green leaves marked with chocolate-brown spots.