Too Late for the Bloom, But Not for the Berries

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.

 

Comments always are welcome.
A helpful discussion of differences among bulbs, tubers, rhizomes, and corms can be found here.

76 thoughts on “Too Late for the Bloom, But Not for the Berries

    1. Isn’t the name good? And it’s such an interesting plant. I still can see it among the ferns, lilies of the valley, and violets that surrounded our front porch, and I was lucky to see it last weekend. I try to always walk a path twice, looking first on one side and then on the other. I found these on my second trip down the path.

  1. What a fascinating plant and find. I read it grew on zone 3 so for you to find it where you are is interesting. I wonder what made it show up there.

    1. East Texas is a whole different world: a combination of pine savannahs, baygalls, bogs, freshwater wetlands, and so on. Last weekend at the Watson preserve I found three species of native orchids, native lilies, pitcher plants, and all manner of other treats that are just as often seen in other areas of the country. The variety of ferns is amazing: cinnamon, maidenhair, royal, netted chain — on and on. Eventually, I’ll start sorting through all of the photos and information and post more about what a unique and beautiful area it is — but I had to start somewhere, and this seemed a good place to start.

    1. I can see the resemblance to pitcher plants — which also grow at this preserve. Apart from the larger size of these leaves, I also noticed that their petioles seem to be equal. In the clusters of poison ivy leaves, one petiole is obviously longer than the others; it’s a little clue to help with identifying poison ivy I only recently learned.

      I read somewhere that Jack-in-the-pulpit often grows in the same areas as trilliums. I’d heard there were trilliums in east Texas, so I’ll have to be watching for them next spring, too.

    1. I looked, and sure enough — you don’t. They’re native only in North America and parts of Canada, although I did smile when it occurred to me that they’re quite common in NEW England!

        1. Of course it is. That’s just my brain chugging along and thinking parenthetically. “They’re native in North America, including Canada” would have been better, but after a day spent working in 100 degree temperatures, my poor brain gets a little sluggish.

    1. I just mentioned to the previous commenter, who lives in England, that the plant is native in Canada as well as the U.S. It’s quite interesting to see how widely spread it is from north to south, and how sharply defined its western border is.

      1. I’m glad you posted a link to the map, which shows that an outlier a little west of the generally sharp border is Travis County. Now, surprisingly, I’ll have to be on the lookout for jack-in-the-pulpit.

  2. Such gorgeous photos! The name evokes interest and I have never heard this name before! The flower and the berries resemble that of taro/ colocasia plant. In Asia the roots, leaves and stem are widely used in cooking. Thoroughly enjoyed the post. Thanks Linda.

    1. Like the Jack-in-the-pulpit, taro also has corms. Here’s another interesting connection: in Liberia, a different, smaller version of the taro corm also is eaten. There, the plant is called eddo, and it’s also in the genus Colocasia. I’ve never eaten taro, but I have had eddo. Thanks for seeing the connection to taro, and reminding me of that Liberian food!

      1. I searched for eddo and realised that it is the same variety of colocasia that we commonly use in Kerala. I love these in a coconut-yoghurt based gravy that would melt in your mouth! Thanks for the interesting information.

    1. I’ve been thinking about this. Maybe it’s been made irritating to humans so the birds will get a chance at it! After all, they treat birdseed with capsaicin to keep the squirrels away; the birds don’t mind the hot, peppery sting, but the squirrels don’t like it one bit.

    1. You know I’ll be looking for the flowers next spring. I might still be trying to identify the berries had I not heard the leader of our Saturday plant walk say, “There usually are Jack-in-the-pulpits here, but I don’t see any.” When I found the berries on Sunday, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to use Jack’s name as a search term, and voila! Instant success.

  3. So many think that Texas is all ‘west’ but that eastern 1/4 of the state really resembles so much more of the southeastern US than they think. The Big Thicket area is such a convergence of habitats and populations, it is considered one of the most biodiverse regions!

    Love a good Jack-in-the-pulpit!

    1. You’re right about that convergence and diversity: characteristics that I’m just beginning to learn about.
      I never expected to see so many species common in New England happily blooming away in Texas, that’s for sure. I’m still a little overwhelmed by my visits there, and by all that I’ve seen. Even sorting photos is a bit of a chore. I’ve ended up just staring at my own photos a time or two.

  4. Leaflets a foot long? Now that’s a plant. (Wonder where it stands in the ancient to modern plant line-up) It does look like Indian corn…or a bundle of those tiny tomatoes.
    Such great pictures ( enough for a “life cycle” post when the flowers make an appearance?)
    (And East TX is a whole different world – good stuff hiding there. I can see why college kids from Amarillo were thrilled to be among the pines there.)

    1. You and Thoreau are on the same wave length. In a September 1856 entry in his journal, Thoreau described the fruit as resembling “a very short thick ear of scarlet corn.” That’s it, exactly. Now that I know what to look for, I’m eager for spring, so I can get some photos of the flowers, and better photos of the leaves. These seemed to be on their way out, losing their glossiness and the sharpness of their veins.

      Any place that has a plant called ‘bog buttons’ is my kind of place. Between the bog buttons, buttonbush, and Barbara’s buttons, I’d say it’s Nature that won the game of Who’s Got the Button!

  5. While I’ve heard of these flowers, I don’t recall ever seeing one. Thank you, Linda, for bringing it to my attention! Now, I’ll have to keep my eyes open and see if I can spot one. Those lovely red berries make it look appetizing — sad that it’s not, though perhaps someone can discover a medicinal use for them??

    1. I’ll bet you have some in your area, since it’s listed for every county in Illinois. Keep an eye out for those big leaves. The ‘jack’ in his ‘pulpit’ often is hidden beneath them.

      The root was used by Native Americans to treat sore throats and coughs, and for a variety of skin conditions, although several articles cautioned that the root was cooked and otherwise processed before being used in those ways. I always wonder who the first person was who looked at one of these plants and thought, “You know, I’ll bet that would be just the ticket for my sore throat…”

        1. I’d forgotten about that site. It does provide interesting information, and I’m glad to see all of the cautions issued throughout the text. A friend who took a course in herbalism said one of her biggest surprises was the huge gap that sometimes exists between common definitions of a procedure, and what’s safe. With the jack-in-the-pulpit root, for example, there’s ‘dry’ and then there’s ‘dry.’ Wiping it off with a paper towel may leave it dry, but the page mentions leaving it for several weeks or months for some uses. You’d have to read the instructions pretty carefully!

          1. One must remember that terminology can change depending on the ‘language’ being spoken… In Herbalism, the term “dried” is interchangeable with “dessicated”, which originates from the Latin word ‘Dessicat’ – meaning ‘made throughly dry’; )

    1. The more I read about the plant, the more interesting it became. Like the buttonbush, it’s not one for your neighborhood, but one of these days I’ll get around to my spring and fall trips around the Willow City Loop — a place full of interesting plants that might do just fine for your land!

    1. I’m looking forward to seeing the flower next spring. On this same trip, I found another plant we sort of share: the pineland hibiscus. It’s a plant of pine flatwoods and isn’t salt tolerant, so it’s not in your immediate neighborhood, but it certainly is a beauty. There’s just no end to the discoveries.

      1. It is true. Anywhere I go or everywhere I go no matter how often, there always seems something new. At least that is my excuse for haunting the same places over and over again!

    1. The Preserve is beautiful, with a fascinating history. Even though it’s relatively small, it’s easy to spend an entire day there wandering the various paths and admiring the mix of plants. I’ve found five species of native orchids there, as well as the ginger and native azalea I mentioned to you. I need to write about Geraldine Watson, too. She seems to have been a force of nature, herself.

    1. It’s a great plant, with a life cycle that’s as interesting as the appearance of the plant itself. The berries certainly are striking. It will be interesting to see how long they linger in these woods.

    1. That’s interesting. Neither the USDA map nor the BONAP map shows them as native anywhere in the west. I checked iNaturalist, since they sometimes have more current information, but even there only one observation had been recorded in the Pacific Northwest. The address for that observation was a three-bedroom, two bath house in Olalla, Washington, so I suspect the plant was in a garden. Do you remember where you found the ones you saw?

        1. I found the funniest exchange at the Lady Bird Wildflower site. It was a question and answer in their advice section: “Can you find skunk cabbage in the Houston, Texas area?” “No, but why should you want to?”

          Poor skunk cabbage! I’m tucking this article here so I can find it easily in the future. It’s a great piece on a really interesting plant. I’ll probably never see it, but I’d love to. Who wouldn’t like a plant that can melt snow?

          It’s interesting that the first paragraph mentions a skunk cabbage discovery trail on the northern California Coast.

          1. I laughed along with you about the exchange. Interesting article, Linda. If you are ever out our way, I found the skunk cabbage at Sunset Bay State Park. Find Coos Bay and it is just a few miles away on the coast. Shore Acres State Park is a mile south. That should catch your interest. :) Shore Acres is known for its gorgeous flower Gardens. The whole area is also interesting from its geological history. You would definitely like it.

            Speaking of smelly plants, it’s Hemp, Hemp, Hooray among our local farming community. Farmers are dreaming of making beaucoup bucks and every square inch is being turned into hemp farms. Hemp, like skunk cabbage and marijuana stinks. And i think Jackson County is rapidly transforming itself from one of the marijuana capitals of the world to one of the hemp capitals! Here’s a local example of its stinky potential. Jacksonville is this lovely little town that has captured and maintained its history. Its been quite strict on development. Next door, is this large vacant area that was a pear farm up until about 5 years ago when the owner cut down all of the pear trees. His thoughts were to build a very large condo community, probably doubling Jacksonville’s size. For obvious reasons, Jacksonville refused to change it’s zoning ordinance to accommodate him, so he threatened the city. What was his threat? “If you don’t let me build my condo complex, I am going to grow hemp.” The city refused to be blackmailed and he has planted the whole area in hemp. Until it is harvested, Jacksonville will have the distinctive oder of eau de skunk!

    1. By the time I finished reading about Devil’s Club, I was thinking of our stinging nettle, which has the same dense covering of spines on its leaves and stems. I thought it was interesting that the berries of Devil’s club are about the only thing not covered with spines, and that they’re favored by wildlife. They do have that same shiny red appearance — I can see why the association came to you.

  6. Didn’t know the Jack-in-the-Pulpit produced fruit. The pulpits I immediately think of are those in the great European and UK cathedrals with the cover above them to project the sound down into the congregation and not up in to the 200 foot ceilings.

    1. Exactly — that’s precisely the kind of pulpit the plant-namers would have thought of. But we don’t need to go to Europe or the UK to see one. The first one that came to mind is at Mission Espiritu Santu in Goliad. There’s a lot of space to be filled with sound there, too.

      Even though I remember Jack-in-the-pulpit from childhood, I don’t remember ever seeing the fruit. Apparently the plant’s processes are fairly complicated, and the red berries don’t always appear. Ours might not have fruited, leaving me with just the memory of the flower.

  7. Jack-in-the-pulpits have shown up in a few places in our yard…under our Japanese Maple and behind our wood pile. Only a couple have produced fruit but I find them in the wild quite often. The berries do look tempting but red can often be a warning and in this case a good one. You’ll have to get down quite low to get Jason’s view. A small reflector comes in handy to illuminate the spadix.

    1. I’m trying to remember what these were near, but so much of the east Texas landscape’s still a green blur to me: too many unfamiliar trees and shrubs. I found this article that’s filled with wonderful details about the plant, including how ‘Jack’ occasionally becomes a ‘Jill.’ It was published on a Maine plant site, so it’s especially relevant to your area. It mentions that jack-in-the-pulpit sometimes is found in the same area as trillium. That caught my attention.

      I’ve found that “How low can you go” often is the question of the day. These were somewhat conveniently placed just off a boardwalk, but I still had to lay on the boardwalk to get the berry photos.

      1. Thanks for the link. I am familiar with them…they published a native lupine image of mine a while back. I should look at their website more often.
        Quite often I am lying on the ground too for some of the smaller plants. As you know, I have a 15mm macro lens and much of the time have to prop it on the ground to keep it steady because my tripod will not go low enough. It’s a trade off. I replaced the long central column with just a ball head directly mounted to the top so I could splay the legs out flat. But that still has the camera too high sometimes. A solution folks use is to turn the long central column upside down under the tripod. 6 of one a half dozen of the other, I guess. Rising from the ground afterwards…well getting old is not for sissies.

    2. I just looked at that reflector, and laughed. You should see me trying to fold up one of those thingies you use to keep the sun off a car’s dashboard. I have certain deficiencies that leave friends looking at me like, “How do you get through a day?”

      1. I had a lot of trouble at first too. You eventually get the hang of it. The 12″ one is so small that even if you can’t fold it into three layers it can still fit in a back jeans pocket.

    3. I don’t have a reflector, and never have seen one used, except for some huge ones that were part of a fashion shoot at the yacht club where I work. That’s about to change, though, because I ordered one after looking at your link, and it’s supposed to show up tomorrow. I have a particular situation where it might well be helpful: photographing a tiny orchid that’s growing under a tree. There’s substantial shade, and it’s almost impossible to avoid shooting into the light that surrounds the shaded spot. If I’m lucky, the plants still will be blooming when I can get back there, reflector in hand. I’ll send an email with a photo of the plant and its location; you might have a tip or two on using the reflector.

    1. I used to gather morels in Iowa, but I swore off all plant nibbling after a weird experience in California, when something that looked like a tiny strawberry most assuredly wasn’t!

  8. You are SO SMART! And you make us smarter, too! I love that you not only show really beautiful images of our natural world but explain what makes them different or how they “work.” You don’t need to know that to appreciate them — but sometimes it makes it more interesting!

    1. I don’t know how smart I am, Jeanie, but I am curious, and when I find something that catches my attention, my first thought usually is something like, “Well, would you look at that. I wonder…” And off I go. In the process of reading about this plant or that, I usually learn something I never would have expected. For example — individual jack-in-the-pulpits can change sex — Jack can become Jill. I’m not sure if Jill can become Jack. More research is required!

  9. This plant is a childhood memory for me too, and I wouldn’t have expected it to be found in Texas – cool! And who knew it’s pollinated by fungus gnats (and whoever heard of fungus gnats?) The berry photos are great, and I know you’ll be itching to find the flowers next year. Looking forward to it!

    1. Not only are these gems pollinated by fungus gnats, the process is pretty remarkable. I found this description of the process:

      “The insects fall inside the pulpit, and if it is a male flower they get covered with pollen in their effort to escape. The sides are so slippery that they can’t climb up and keep falling back to the bottom. Fortunately there is a small hole at the base of the pulpit, and they eventually find their way out. They don’t seem to learn their lesson, however, and keep on venturing inside other Jack-in-the-pulpit flowers. If they fall into a female flower they leave their load of pollen on it, but in this case they cannot escape, there is no opening at the base.”

      Poor gnats, but lucky pulpits!

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