I have always been drawn to Jack-in-the-pulpit,
and to the damp-wood aromas and dappled light of its habitat.
I revere this plant’s stately, regal posture. I relate to its protective secrecy, growing beneath shady forest canopy, beneath its own leafy umbrella,
its flowers still further embraced within and shielded beneath
its own hooded cloak. On a forest walk in early spring,
I found myself in awe. I was surrounded by the largest
community of Jack-in-the-pulpit I had ever seen.
Beholding their striking size and beautifully mottled colours,
I fell in love and my creative course was set.
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A Bit About Jack
Jack-in-the-pulpit goes by many other names: Indian or Wild Turnip, Bog Onion, Brown Dragon, & American Wake Robin. While some experts consider Arisaema atrorubens a species in its own right, others believe it to be a subspecies of A. triphyllum. What distinguishes the two is the number of trifoliate leaves, with A. triphyllum having one, while A. atrorubens has two.
Sheltered beneath the light green or deeper green & maroon spathe is the plant’s inflorescence, an unbranched fleshy stalk called a spadix. Somewhat sunken into the base of the spadix are many minute unisex flowers. Pollinated by flies, the individual plants cleverly avoid self-pollination by staggering male and female floral development.
Once pollinated, the spathe gives way to a tight cluster of smooth, green berries. Coinciding with the cooler nights of late summer, the berries turn a vibrant red-orange. Each berry produces 1-5 cream-white seeds. Each seed that is freed from the berry will germinate the following spring, producing a single rounded leaf. Seedlings need 3+ years of growth before they flower. Following the first year, the plant offers 1 or 2 leaves with 3 leaflets. These young, non-flowering trifoliate plants can be confused with Poison Ivy.
Jack, Humans & Wildlife
As a member of the Arum Family Araceae, all parts of this herbaceous perennial plant contain calcium oxalate crystals. While these crystals, if eaten raw, can mechanically injure the mouth, throat & kidneys, once thoroughly dried the acrid corm (root) is safe to eat. Historically, people ate the corm by slicing it fine or grinding it into flour. Medicinally, it was used to treat sore eyes, rheumatic joints, bronchitis, snakebites, and to induce sterility. Beyond this, the Meskwaki people added the raw, highly acrid corm to meat to cause their enemies pain & death.
Here in Southwestern Ontario, the bright red fruit of Jack-in-the-pulpit may account for 1/2 – 2% of the Wild Turkey & Wood Thrush diet.
Elpel, Thomas J. Botany in a Day The Patterns Method of Plant Identification. Pony, Montana: HOPS
Press, LLC, 2013.
Martin, Alexander C., Herbert S. Zim & Arnold L. Nelson. American Wildlife & Plants A Guide To Wildlife Food Habits. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1961.
Newcomb, Lawrence. Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide. New York, New York: Little Brown and Company, 1977.
Pell, Susan K. & Bobbi Angell. A Botanist’s Vocabulary 1300 Terms Explained and Illustrated. Portland, Oregon: Timber Press, 2016.
“Arisaema triphyllum.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Updated 22 May 2018. Web. Accessed on 30 May 2018. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arisaema_triphyllum