Introduction: Harvesting Natural Podophyllotoxin in Your Local Forest for Use in Treating Genital Warts

About: Educator, Analyst, Social Entrepreneur, Polymath.

[PHOTO CREDIT: Cassi Saari]

"Having your warts cured? Great. Taking a walk in the woods? Fabulous. Having your warts cured by taking a walk in the woods? Priceless." - Pefty

Ever heard the statistic that "25% of our medicines come directly from plants"? Ever wondered which medicines? Ever wondered which plants? Would you be surprised to hear that a very expensive topical medicine for an everyday disease is made from a very common, very recognizable, and very easily processed plant native to forests throughout the eastern USA? Yeah, I was surprised too. The Mayapple plant was already one of my favorite native plants when I found out its medicinal use.

It turns out that one of the only known drugs for treatment of genital warts is podophyllotoxin, an alkaloid that the pharma-industrial complex harvests from the only place it can be found in any quantity: the roots of the local native Mayapple plant. Standard pharmaceutical doses range from 0.15% to 0.5% strength, quite similar to the concentrations at which the chemical naturally occurs in Mayapple roots. I decided to try skipping the pharma-industrial complex and prepare a topical ointment of my own. Since similar preparation instructions do not seem to be available anywhere on the web, and since my preparation worked so well (warts were gone in a week, with no detectable side effects), and since it was such a world-changing experience to make use of my natural surroundings in medicinal healing, I decided I owed it to the community to post how I went about it :)

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In the medicinal arena, I can vouch only for my own experience and cannot count myself Hippocratically qualified to recommend treatment to others. This instructable is to be used as a narrative of my experience ONLY, not as how-to cure instructions. In the case I treated, a qualified doctor had identified the case as genital warts caused by HPV and had recommended topical treatment.

Within the mainstream medical research community, Podophyllotoxin is regarded as sufficiently safe for unsupervised application by the patient and does not need to be washed off.¹ That said, Podophyllotoxin is a mitosis disruptor and should be handled with great care. DO NOT EVER INGEST Mayapple plants, and if possible, don't even handle the roots with your bare hands. Wash immediately with soap and water if you do. Probably don't use the same equipment for PREPARING FOOD that you use for handling Mayapple material. DO NOT BREATHE any dust that you create from Mayapple material, and DO NOT GET ANY IN YOUR EYES. Podophyllotoxin Material Safety Data Sheet ("MSDS") can be found as a PDF here:

This treatment is not recommended for treating genital warts *inside* the penis, rectum, or vagina.
This treatment is not recommended for bleeding, swollen, or irritated skin.
This treatment is not recommended if you are experiencing any of the following:
• diabetes
• circulation problems
• Raynaud's syndrome
• use of steroid medications such as prednisone, fluticasone (Advair), mometasone (Asmanex, Nasonex), dexamethasone (Decadron, Hexadrol) and others
• pregnancy or breast-feeding

Genital warts are contagious. Avoid unprotected* intimate contact if you have genital warts. Surprisingly, even successful wart treatment can't guarantee you won't pass genital warts to others. Talk with your doctor about safe methods of preventing transmission during intimate contact, and then look at the informed consent conversations you'll want to start enjoying with intimate partners.

Foraging wild plants means leaving plenty for wildlife and other thrifty foragers, being mindful of the natural habitat, asking permission before you pick on private land, and other common courtesies. If you haven't wild-foraged before, consider committing to abiding by a set of rules like these:

* A condom may or may not suffice for protection, depending on the wart site. Be sensible.
¹ Lacey CJN, Goodall RL, Tenvall GR, et al., 2003: "Randomised controlled trial and economic evaluation of podophyllotoxin solution, podophyllotoxin cream, and podophyllin in the treatment of genital warts." Sex Transm Infect. 79: pp. 270-275. doi: 10.1136/sti.79.4.270. url:

Step 1: Materials!

Materials needed:

- A genital wart (duh)
- An inorganic paste medium; I use bacitracin but vaseline might be just as good
- A little square band-aid
- A paper towel
- Latex or other disposable gloves
- A knife, blunt or sharp. DEDICATED to handling Mayapples.
- A garden hand spade
- A spice grinder or mortar&pestle. Blender or food processor may work too. DEDICATED to handling Mayapples.
- Access to Mayapple plants, either on eBay, or in a local forest between ~April and ~August

Step 2: Obtain Mayapple Roots

The most fulfilling aspect of this project was harvesting the Mayapple plants myself, rather than buying them from some nursery. That said, if you don't have access to a forest to harvest from, you can usually find Mayapple roots (or "bulbs") selling on eBay. This is especially useful during the winter! In fact, Mayapple plants are unusual in that they senesce and go dormant by August, even in areas where the growing season lasts much longer. So if you want to harvest them yourself, it's imperative to get out there between ~April and ~August, depending on your local climate.

Mayapple grows in forests throughout eastern North America (for Canada map see here), often in dense patches that contain only Mayapple plants. When they first appear in April their umbrella-like leaves are folded up, but by May the unfurling of their single leaf (or sometimes two leaves) is complete, and a single white flower blooms under the leafy canopy. If fertilized, this flower produces a green ball-shaped fruit known as, you guessed it, the May Apple.

Mayapples are common enough that you're likely to encounter them on any hike through the woods in your area, as long as you're in the geographic range marked on this map. When you find a patch of Mayapple plants, take just one or maybe two plants -- this will be plenty, and will leave plenty for sustaining the local population (as well as for other readers of this instructable). Mayapple roots are tenacious, so bring a little hand spade and dig up the main root. DO NOT HANDLE DIRECTLY with bare skin if you can avoid it. Use your latex gloves or other gloves here if you like.

If I were not going to prepare the ointment immediately, I would consider placing the roots in a plastic bag in the refrigerator (WITH A NOTE THAT SAYS 'DO NOT EAT') and spraying them with a little water until I was ready to work with them.

Step 3: Separate the Main Root

Again wearing my latex gloves, I pulled off any spindly side root hairs and kept just the main root. Using a knife THAT I DO NOT USE FOR PREPARING FOOD, I chopped the root into pieces small enough to fit into the spice grinder, blender, or pestle that I was about to use to grind the root into fine gratings.

Step 4: Finely Grate the Main Root

I kept grinding until the gratings were on the order of a millimeter long and perhaps half a millimeter wide. When further grinding was getting me nowhere, I dumped the gratings out onto a paper towel. I spread them out using my latex gloves.

Step 5: Leave the Gratings Out to Dry Overnight

I kept my paper towel full of Mayapple gratings out of the reach of children and pets overnight while they dried. The gratings still seemed pretty coarse, but it turned out not to be an issue.

Step 6: Re-grind the Gratings

A second grinding of the gratings, once dry, makes an unbelievable difference in obtaining a fine powder that can be made into a paste. I  used the same spice grinder, blender, or pestle that I used before. I was careful NOT TO INHALE any dust clouds I created in this step.

Step 7: Mix in Carrier Paste

I needed some kind of paste as a carrier for the Mayapple powder. I used bacitracin because it was handy and clearly benign, but I imagine shea butter or even vaseline might do just as good a job. I slowly mixed in my carrier paste until it incorporated all the Mayapple powder. Since it seemed a little too pasty, I added a little more carrier and mixed until homogeneous. This mixing can be done by hand (WITH GLOVES ON) or perhaps in the same spice grinder or mortar. This extra step dilutes the drug strength back down to a level closer to that found in pharma-industrial products.

That's it! This was my preparation from live Mayapple.

Step 8: Apply Ointment to Square Band-Aid

In order to apply the ointment to the wart only, a small square Band-Aid is helpful. I recommend applying a tiny bit of ointment to the pad of the Band-Aid, then sticking the Band-Aid over the wart.

Step 9: Sleep

I recommend leaving the Band-Aid on overnight and checking how it feels in the morning. From anecdotal experience, It's normal for it to feel oddly itchy/painful, because the toxin is attacking wart cells that are part of your body whether you like it or not :)  But leaving it on for 24 hours seems to be quite effective while doing no damage to surrounding cells. After removing the band-aid, all that's necessary to do is shower and wash the area with soap and water. Make sure to let the area dry normally rather than slip directly from the shower into sweaty tight pants.

Step 10: Reapply During the Following Week

Although pharma-industrial dosing recommends 4 nights in a row of treatment, initial cautious experimentation is advised. You may find that 1 night's treatment is sufficient to cause the wart's elimination within 5 days that go from itchy to scabby to wart-free. But to help assure prevention of recurrence, you can do a repeat application every night, or every other night, for four applications. Here, Western pharma-industrial medicine and anecdotal holistic experience coincide.

Step 11: Save Remaining Supplies

Not everyone knows that HPV warts continue to recur until your body decides to overcome the virus. This can mean 1 recurrence, or many. Until then, reapplying the ointment will do its job on any recurring warty manifestation of the virus. (And remember, this is no worse an outcome than for the drug a doctor would prescribe you -- this *is* the drug a doctor would prescribe you!) So it's advised to keep ointment on hand just in case, in the refrigerator (WITH A NOTE THAT SAYS 'DO NOT EAT').

Step 12: Reflect in Awe and Wonder at the Natural World Around You

Why is it that there happens to be a ready-made natural treatment for genital warts, and why does it come from a local plant that clearly has no ecological/evolutionary connection to warts or HPV? It kind of blows my mind.

Although starting to wild-forage for food was pretty amazing, wild-foraging for medicine has transformed my entire relationship with nature and my identity as a mediator between nature and de-natured human society. I hope that this instructable inspires some lucky few to get out there and explore what is possible in the natural world, especially if what becomes possible is awe, and healing.

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