Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) ~ Jason Hollinger
Jack-in-the-pulpits thrived among the ferns surrounding my childhood home in Iowa. Whether they were native I can’t say, but the plant is shown as native in several Iowa counties and, next door in Illinois, it grows in every county in the state.
Still, it’s more of an eastern plant than a western, and I’d never expected to find it in Texas. When I discovered a large patch of leaves and ripening fruit last weekend at the Watson Rare Plant Preserve in East Texas, it was a special treat.
The structure that most people call the Jack-in-the-pulpit flower actually is a tall stalk called a spadix (the ‘Jack’) inside a hooded cup known as a spathe (the ‘pulpit’). The true flowers, tiny green or yellow-tinged dots, line the spadix, and the entire structure is surrounded by large, three-lobed leaves that often hide the spathe from view.
Mature corms, the plant’s underground stems that store nutrients used by roots, leaves, and flowers in the next growing season, produce one or two large compound leaves atop stout, fleshy stalks. Typically, three leaflets emerge, although five sometimes appear. They aren’t hard to spot; the leaflets can be as much as a foot long and eight inches wide.
The flowers bloom for about two weeks, from mid- to late-spring, and are pollinated by fungus gnats. In late summer or fall, the spathe falls off and the flowers transform into clusters of bright red berries. At the Watson Preserve, several stages of the ripening process were tucked away in the woods.
Jack-in-the-pulpit also is known as Indian turnip: a nod to the cooked corms eaten by Native Americans. However, the plant’s foliage, corms, and berries contain calcium oxalate crystals which can irritate the skin. Eating any part of the plant raw can lead to a burning or blistered mouth, as well as irritation of the gastrointestinal tract, and warnings abound.
Even mammals rarely eat the plant, although upland game birds occasionally will feed on the foliage, and berries are consumed by wood thrushes and wild turkeys.
Jack-in-the-pulpit thrives in mesic deciduous woodlands, thickets, and hillside seeps with light shade and humus-rich soil: a nearly perfect description of the spots where I found them at the Watson Preserve. Next year, I’ll know where to look for the flowers.