When Jack-in-the-pulpit rises from the moist earth of the forest, we know that spring has arrived in full force. This native flower is so commonplace and familiar a sight in our woodlands at this time of year that few take more than passing notice of it. Its color, pale or darker green, with darker purplish stripes, is less eye-catching than the rose-purple of the wild geranium, which often blooms nearby. Yet this humble plant rewards those who pause to take a closer look. Georgia O’Keefe did, and celebrated the subtle beauty of its form and design in a series of remarkable paintings.
Jack-in-pulpit is in the Arum family, which includes our native skunk cabbage and sweet flag, and the well-known calla lily from South Africa, all of which bear a leafy covering, called a spathe, that protects the flower parts. Jack-in-the-pulpit’s spathe is shaped like an old-fashioned preacher’s pulpit, under which the green flower spike, or spadix can be seen, if you look closely. This spadix, or “Jack,” bears the actual flowers at its base, visible if you gently open the lower part of the spathe. The flowers on any one plant are all male or all female. Female flowers look like tiny clustered green berries, while the male flowers are thread-like, and shed light-colored pollen. You may also find some small flies inside the pulpit, probably fungus flies, fooled into entering the flower by its odor, promising fungus to lay their eggs on. These flies, and other insects lured into the pulpits, carry pollen from male to female flowers.
It turns out that a Jack-in-the-pulpit plant may bear female flowers one year, and male flowers, or no flowers at all, the next. This is an energy conservation strategy: after lean years, when the underground rootstock or corm stores less food, Jack-in-the-pulpit produces male flowers, or none at all. When the corm fattens again after a good growing season, the plant can afford to bear female flowers, which ripen into bright red berries by late summer, an energy-intensive process. Thus Jack-in-the-pulpit can actually change its sex from year to year in order to adapt to local conditions!
Jack-in-the-pulpit’s starchy corm was used by native people for food, despite the presence of many sharp calcium oxalate crystals, which can apparently be dissipated by baking or long periods of drying. Hence another of the plant’s common names, Indian turnip. Eaten raw, all parts of the plant produce a burning sensation in the mouth, as its calcium oxalate crystals pierce the soft tissues of the tongue, causing it to swell so much that the victim is unable to speak for many hours. It is said that mountain folk sometimes “seasoned” food with Jack-in-the-pulpit as a practical joke, intended to silence an overly talkative person for a while. This led to another folk name for the plant, “mother-in-law root.”
Jack-in-the-pulpit makes its first appearance in the spring as a brownish or greenish-purple spear poking out of the soil. The unfurling of its three-part leaves, and spathe, from this spear is as interesting and beautiful to observe as the unscrolling of fern fiddleheads. If Jack were an actual preacher within his leafy pulpit, perhaps his sermon would speak of the unexpected miracles performed by the most common living things, and urge us to seek the extraordinary within the ordinary in nature.
Richard Parisio is a lifelong naturalist, educator and writer. He currently leads field trips for school classes at Mohonk Preserve, teaches courses about John Burroughs and conducts tours of Slabsides and the John Burroughs Sanctuary for groups and individuals by request. Rich is New York State coordinator for River of Words, a national poetry and art program on the theme of watersheds, and teaches River of Words programs for school classes, grades K-12, by request. Contact Rich (firstname.lastname@example.org) with questions, comments, or suggestions for Nature at Your Doorstep.