Friday, June 26, 2009

Jacks and Jills

© Dave Spier

Many people recognize Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema sp.) as a native spring woodland wildflower, but how many can tell which ones are Jill’s? It's actually simple, but we'll get to that later. The plant is in the Arum family and therefore related to Skunk-cabbage, plus Arrow Arum, Sweetflag and Green Dragon. Most of these species have their flowers inside a hood (called a spathe). In the case of Jack (or Jill) the club-shaped spadix resembles a preacher in his canopied pulpit. The actual flowers are tiny and hidden at the base of the spadix, inside the bottom of the hood. Male (staminate) and female (pistillate) flowers are on separate plants. Now, consider that it takes much more energy to be a female than a male. Pollen production is a short-term process that soon ends, but nourishing seeds takes the remainder of the summer until they ripen and turn bright scarlet red. Does this give you any clues? Female plants are larger and almost always have two leaves while male plants are smaller and have one leaf. But hold on, we're not done yet. The same plant can change back and forth depending on growing conditions!

Like many woodland wildflowers it takes a number of years for an individual plant to reach sexual maturity and begin flowering. Life is tough in the woods. Most of the growing season is spent in the shade of larger plants, primarily trees. It takes time, years of time, to store enough food (energy) underground to meet the added burden of producing flowers. Jack-in-the-pulpits start life as a single, small, compound leaf that grows larger each year until it has enough energy to add a male flower. If life is good, it eventually stores enough food to produce a female flower the following year. This usually takes three to five years. If conditions deteriorate -- there's not enough sunlight or not enough rain or it's too cold -- the plant can go back to being a male and start the process all over again.

Depending on which botanist you consult, there are either three species of Jack-in-the-pulpit or simply three varieties within one species, Arisaema triphyllum. I suspect that some of the confusion comes from the sexual variability within any given population. Aside from that there are variations in physical appearance. Some Jacks have green hoods, others have white-striped green hoods and a third variety has purple hoods usually with light stripes. The leaves are always three-parted and long-stalked. Some varieties can grow a foot high, while others reach three feet. This may be partly a result of soil fertility. The plants generally grow in moist woodlands, often at the edge of a swamp.

Jack-in-the-pulpit fruits ("berry" cluster) in late summer

This plant is also known as Indian turnip, but be warned that the underground corm contains crystals of calcium oxalate which cause an intense burning sensation in the mouth. There's a way around this but take pity on the hard life of the Jack and leave it to grow another year. If you really want to experiment with wild foods, use the plentiful Skunk-cabbage, but email me [linked below] for precautions and details. If you happen to stop at the Montezuma Audubon Center in Savannah, NY, and hike the Warbler Walk trail, you can take a look at both the Jack-in-the-pulpit and the Skunk-cabbage.

one of my first encounter with a Jack-in-the-pulpit in the late 60's or early 70's
(all of the spring shots are scanned from slides)
Corrections, comments and questions are always welcome at or connect through my Facebook page and photo page. There's also a community-type page for The Northeast Naturalist. Other nature and geology topics can be found on the parallel blogs Adirondack Naturalist and Heading Out.

(This copyrighted article and the first photo appeared in the May 24, 2009 issue of the Times of Wayne County. All rights reserved.)

1 comment:

eyewitness said...

Thank you so much for introducing this amazing plant.

I can't see in my surroundings.

Best Wishes!