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.

The Forest and the Trees

A first encounter with Sandyland Sanctuary

It’s an old saying, and a familiar experience. “I couldn’t see the forest for the trees,” someone declares, and everyone smiles knowingly. We’ve all been there.

On the other hand, the opposite can be equally true. At first glance the pineywoods of east Texas — crowded, dim if not dark, deeply unfamiliar — can seem impenetrable: a pile of sticks leaning against a wall of green. Even the Big Thicket’s name seems off-putting. People who’ve never picked dewberries or read the journals of early Texas settlers still have a vague understanding of thickets. They’re difficult to pass through, possibly dangerous, and best avoided.

But thickets can be more than obstacles on the way to somewhere else, and the Big Thicket offers proof. Step inside the forest, and it’s easy to see the trees in a new way.

Longleaf pine upland forest ~ Big Thicket

Look more closely, and enchanting details begin to emerge.

Some especially appealing longleaf bark
An unidentified vine secures itself as it climbs
Shadows of neighboring shrubs play against the trees’ rough surfaces
One face of the forest peers out from among the leaves

Here and there, young longleafs bide their time, developing their root systems. For periods as long as several years, they resemble clumps of grass: their buds protected beneath a bundle of needles. Should fire sweep through, the needles may burn but the bud will remain protected and virtually immune to fire.  

Longleaf pine grass stage ~ Sandyland Sanctuary

When the root collar (a transitional zone between the roots and the trunk of a tree) becomes about an inch in diameter, the longleaf begins to grow. A single white tip called a ‘candle’ emerges from the protective sheath of needles, new needles develop, and, in time, bark begins to form.

Rapid growth allows the seedling’s growing tip to rise above potential fires, and after a year or two the bark has thickened enough to withstand most fires. No branches form during this so-called ‘bottlebrush’ stage, when all of the tree’s energy is focused on ‘up’ rather than ‘out.’

Longleaf pine bottlebrush stage ~ Sandyland Sanctuary (Sandhill Loop Trail)
Longleaf needles-in-waiting ~Sandyland Sanctuary (Sandhill Loop Trail)

After passing through the bottlebrush stage and the aptly-named candelabra stage so obvious in my photo of dawn in the Big Thicket, the longleaf moves on to maturity.

Longleaf pine showing off new needles and cones ~ Big Thicket (Solo Tract)

In time, cones will fall and seeds will disperse, preparing the way for more trees. But more than fallen needles are there to receive the cones. In the Big Thicket, pine trees of various sorts coexist with everything from cacti to ferns, and any fallen cone becomes an invitation to further exploration.

Pine cone and needles with eastern prickly pear (Opuntia humifusa) ~ Sandyland
Pine cone with ferns ~ Big Thicket (Sundew Trail)

 

Comments always are welcome.

Go East, Young Woman

Dawn in the Big Thicket

After years of living among Texas’s gulf prairies and marshes, and traveling primarily to the south Texas plains or the Edwards Plateau for a little variety, I finally was tempted into a third Texas ecoregion: the piney woods of east Texas.

Although I’d visited the area to search for Winkler’s Gaillardia, a rare white firewheel that grows at the Nature Conservancy’s Sandyland Sanctuary, it wasn’t until a recent guided field trip to the Sanctuary and the Watson Rare Plant Preserve that I knew a more extended trip into the area was called for.

A ranger at the Big Thicket visitor center tipped me off to an undeveloped but accessible area where I could find hundreds of sundews, another plant I was eager to locate. On Sunday morning, I returned to the spot to watch the sun rise among young long leaf pines, listening to birds whose calls I’d never heard greet the coming day.