Jack-In-The-Pulpit

With the long days of summer now upon us, the daytime temperatures have warmed up giving way to early summer wildflowers like foxglove beardtongue and black-eyed susan. A couple of weeks ago, I came across a very unique looking plant in the shady, wet areas of my woods. At first glance, I incorrectly thought I was looking at the carnivorous, insect-eating pitcher plant (Sarracenia purpurea). Upon closer inspection I noticed the small, spike-like inflorescence hidden inside the hooded bract. I also noticed the bizarre purple and green stripes along the bracts but not on the three green leaves making up the rest of the plant.  A quick skim through a wildflower identification guide informed me that I was looking at jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum).

 

Looking like a tropical or alien plant, jack-in-the-pulpit is actually native to Michigan and the rest of Eastern North America. Preferring moist, deciduous forests, its range extends from Nova Scotia to the Gulf of Mexico and westward to Minnesota and Louisiana. The plant prefers moderately wet, humus-rich sites with partial shade. In winter, a covering of leaf-litter offers needed protection from the harsh winter winds and temperatures. This woodland plant often appears as a singular plant with three leaflets growing on top of one or two long stems. Emerging from its own stalk, the flower is typically 3 to 4 inches tall, about 1 to 2 inches wide and includes a 2 to 3 inch club (the “jack” or spadix) in a tubular structure with a hood (the “pulpit” or spathe). The plant flowers in June or July and is pollinated by flies attracted to the mushroom-like scent. In July to August, after flowering and only if pollinated by a separate plant, jack-in-the-pulpit may produce smooth, shiny, green fruit as a cluster of berries which will ripen into a bright red color before the plant goes dormant. The berries are consumed by birds and some mammals, but is toxic to humans, cats, dogs, and horses.

 

POISONOUS! - Consumed raw, this plant can be poisonous to humans and pets. However, if cooked and prepared properly, the root and spadix can be eaten like a vegetable. The plant contains needle-like calcium oxalate crystals that break down when cooked, therefore it should never be consumed raw and gloves should be worn while handling the plant. Eating jack-in-the-pulpit raw gives a peppery taste and may result in a burning sensation in the mouth and throat. In some cases, swelling can occur and restrict breathing. The plant may be confused with poison ivy which also has three leaves, but the venation in jack-in-the-pulpit is much more pronounced. The Meskwaki Indians of the Great Lakes region are told to have used the plant to poison their enemies by inserting the raw plant parts into meat and then leaving it for enemies to find and consume. This would result in severe sickness, pain, and even death.

 

Another intriguing aspect of this plant is that it is considered a protandrous hermaphrodite. Hermaphroditic plants possess both male and female reproductive parts. In protandrous plants the male reproductive parts mature before the female. While still a young plant, jack-in-the-pulpit produces only male flowers. As the seasons pass, and only if there are sufficient nutrients available, the plant may then begin producing female flowers. If conditions change and become less favorable, the plant is able to change back to male and preserve its energy. Expressing one gender at a time makes self-pollination impossible for jack-in-the-pulpit and requires pollination from a plant that is expressing the other gender. This beneficial adaptation preserves genetic diversity and the health of the species by supporting cross-pollination and encouraging reproduction only in favorable sites.

 

Many poems and works of art have been inspired by this curious woodland plant. One poem in particular, by John Greenleaf Whittier, personifies jack-in-the-pulpit and other wildflowers in a 19th century instructional coloring book. The full poem and coloring book can be found in the Library of Congress online archive at https://catalog.loc.gov. I’ll conclude this month’s article with an excerpt from Whittier’s poem “Jack In The Pulpit” originally published in 1885:

 

 

Under the green trees

Just over the way,

Jack in the pulpit

Preaches today.

 

Squirrel and song sparrow

High on their perch

Hear the sweet lilybells

Ringing to church.

 

Come hear what his reverend

Rises to say

In his queer little pulpit

This fine Sabbath day.

 

Fair is the canopy

Over him seen,

Painted by nature’s hand

Black, brown, and green.

 

Green is his pulpit,

Green are his bands,

In his queer little pulpit

The little priest stands.

 

-J.G. Whittier (1807-1892)

 

Northern Spring Peepers

Spring is here! And with it comes warmer days and greater opportunities for viewing wildlife. Mother Nature is ringing in spring, pushing up wildflowers and bulbs and breaking open forsythia blooms. The rejuvenating sunshine is warming the soil and April showers bathed the landscape promising May flowers. Migratory birds are returning and the songs of robins and bluebirds are music to our ears. In the low areas, the soil is wet enough you need to wear muck boots which make the most inappropriate sounds as you tug them from the suction of the sludge. Perhaps that is Mother Nature herself challenging you to be still, look, listen, and spare a moment to take it all in. In a thriving wetland ecosystem, life abounds and it is too easy to miss the beautiful details if we don’t slow down to “stop and smell the roses.” Not all signs of spring are as obvious as a vibrant bed of tulips; some require a closer look, a listening ear and a slower pace. Emerging from underground overwintering sites or leaf litter, the Northern spring peeper is very small and often overlooked, yet remains a traditional harbinger of the sounds of spring.

When night falls, creatures like the spring peeper begin audibly signalling the changing of the season. This small chorus frog is one of the first amphibians to emerge in spring, often when the nighttime temperatures reach 50 degrees. Take a close listen near any wetland area and chances are you’ll hear them. Individual peepers sound like a chicken peeping or chirping. When en masse, the peepers can be almost deafening, sounding like distant sleigh bells. On a rainy, warm evening, pull on your wet boots and a raincoat to enter the amphibian world and you may be lucky enough to be awarded a quick glimpse of this tiny frog.

The Northern spring peeper (Pseudacris crucifer) receives its scientific name “crucifer” meaning “cross-bearer” due to the cross shape or X marking on its back. This is also the easiest way to identify them. The spring peeper is a small chorus frog typically the size of your thumb and weighing less than a nickel at maturity. Their coloring can range from brown to gray or olive and may be yellow or reddish. This coloring allows them to blend in with tree bark and dead leaves. The frog has large toe pads to aid in climbing, although the frog is more often found in the leaves and debris on the forest floor than high up in the tree canopy.

Spring peepers are usually found in wet, regenerating forest lands, flooded roadside ditches and in the wet grass of swales surrounding lakes and bogs. Areas with permanent or temporary water nearby are required for their breeding habitat. A study from 1951 in Washtenaw County found spring peepers to be the most abundant animal in the months of March, April, and May. Today, they can still be found in very high numbers in areas with suitable habitat. Though easy to see and hear in the spring, spotting these frogs becomes much more difficult in the summer months as their breeding cycle ends and growing vegetation offers shelter and privacy. Adequate shelter is crucial to the survival of spring peepers for providing protection from dangerous predators.

The diet of spring peepers is based on availability more than preference and consists mainly of arachnids, ants and beetles. Slow, crawling animals are preyed upon more often than active flying insects. A study from 1963 found Northern spring peepers perched on the upper branches of goldenrod, joe-pye weed, and elderberries eating insects attracted to the flowers. The frogs were feeding on small arthropods, spiders and mites based on the observed gut contents of 25 spring peepers.

In wetland areas, frogs are valued for more than their delightful sounds. Considered an “indicator species”, the presence of frogs is an indicator of good ecological health. Organisms like frogs are very sensitive to pollution and will vacate an area or die off once a threshold of pollutants is reached. Water bugs are another example of an indicator species. Frogs and toads are also valuable for insect control. Every day they can consume double or triple their body weight in pests such as sowbugs, ants, ticks, earwigs and slugs.

Take a night walk around wet areas on your property, shine a flashlight under bushes and along the water line and look for glowing eyes. With a total of 13 frogs and toads to be found in Michigan, it’s not too difficult to identify the species. Similar to birding, many enthusiasts develop a skill for identifying frogs by listening for their calls, often with a group of like-minded naturalists. Many audio recordings of frog calls are available online or from your local library to study and memorize. Take it a step further by acting as a “citizen scientist” and report your frogs and other amphibians on the Michigan Herp Atlas at www.miherpatlas.org . You can also see the compiled results of over 2,000 members across Michigan active in reporting amphibians and reptiles.

May is American Wetlands Month—encouraging us to explore, learn, and appreciate our many beautiful wetlands. Preserving and restoring fragile wetland environments secures the habitat needed for these sensitive amphibians. Pollution is a serious threat to wetland ecosystems, easily running off fields, roads, and lawns into drainage ditches and creeks leading to wetlands and swamps. Many sensitive inhabitants of these regions, like the spring peeper, absorb water through their skin. Water pollutants can therefore carry critical repercussions for the health of the ecosystem. So, as we explore these wetland utopias and marvel over the myriad lifeforms and eco-relationships, keep in mind the delicate balance in place and our role and responsibility in protecting them.

Skunks: The Good, The Bad, and the Stinky

Taking advantage of the warmer temperatures, many are enjoying a morning walk around their property or an evening stroll with the dogs to watch the sunset. In these dimly-lit hours when the sun rests low on the horizon, we are granted the perspective to experience sights, sounds, and smells rarely witnessed during the daytime. Bats flutter overhead against the gray sky devouring thousands of insects, mourning doves coo and owls hoot. But when we breathe in the chill, damp air expecting a breath of fresh air only to get a strong whiff of skunk; we know it’s skunk season.

Mephitis mephitis (Latin for “noxious vapor”) commonly named the striped skunk, is a nocturnal mammal meaning they are primarily active just before sunset and become inactive just prior to sunrise. The first reports of skunks were from the historical accounts of Christopher Columbus. Native Americans were known to keep them as pets, and farmers valued them for their ability to catch rodents and other pests.

By and large, everybody knows a skunk when they smell it. Most wild skunks will only spray when injured or threatened. The paired scent glands contain an overpowering, yellowish musk, which can be discharged in a fluid spray, reaching up to 20 feet. The mist can drift even further, carrying the scent for long distances and easily detected by humans. The musk is an irritant to the senses and has been documented to cause nausea, intense pain and temporary blindness. As an initial warning to potential predators, skunks will face an opponent while arching its back and raising its tail, then stomp on the ground with its legs. If the opponent does not back away, a skunk will bend its hindquarters around while still facing the intruder and spray.

Despite their stinky habits, skunks can be an appreciated visitor as they are especially useful at controlling field mice populations and other rodents around homes and barns. Coyotes, badgers, foxes, minks and weasels are known as strong predators of noxious rodents, but the skunk surpasses them all. It has been observed that when skunks are heavily trapped and hunted, local rodent populations increase.

 Farm pests like armyworms and june bugs have been shown to be effectively controlled by skunks. Skunks are valued for control of hop borer grubs as they are the only efficient natural predator of this moth. The skunk will reportedly listen at the base of the hop vine to locate the larvae. In fact, it was mainly through the efforts of hop growers that legislation protecting the striped skunk was first enacted.

The diverse diet of a striped skunk depends on the season and what is available. In the spring and summer months insects compose a large portion of their diet along with frogs, lizards, bird eggs, spiders, snakes, and mice. In the fall and winter months, skunks will consume a variety of fruits, carrion, grasses, leaves, buds, and nuts. Skunks are gluttonous eaters and obesity is often a problem.

The only known predator of the striped skunk is the great horned owl. The great horned owl is believed to have a very weak sense of smell, allowing it to attack skunks despite being sprayed. The nest of a great horned owl may occasionally stink of skunk spray.

Skunks have long been trapped and hunted for their valuable pelts. Skunk fur has been used in the fur industry since the mid 1800’s, increasing in popularity into the early 1900’s and exceeding the production of muskrat as the most traded fur. The early 1940’s saw an increase in the demand for skunk fur resulting in pelts doubling in price. Previous to the 1950’s it was sold under different names including Alaskan Sable and American Sable.

Breeding season for the striped skunk begins mid-February and continues through early April. Adult males are known to travel long distances in search of a mate, some reported to travel up to two miles from their dens. During this period of increased activity, many male skunks are killed while crossing roads and highways. The striped skunk is a slow-moving mammal with inferior vision, but are believed to possess a very acute sense of touch, smell, and hearing.

Highly adaptable to human-dominated landscapes, skunks will feed on bird seed from feeders and raid garbage containers in urban areas. Skunks may also destroy beehives and apiaries, capable of destroying apiaries in two visits. This is easily remedied by placing hives on a tall bench, as skunks are poor climbers.

Skunks aren’t going anywhere. They lived alongside Native Americans even before Columbus sailed. As humans dominate the landscape, skunks have shown their impressive ability to adapt to their surroundings and flourish despite the loss of habitat and breeding ground. Skunks have learned to live with us and we should be willing to live with them. Yet even today most people only know them by their stinky defense mechanism. By learning more about skunks and their significant role in the ecosystem, we might better appreciate their value. Steer clear while driving and walking outside and keep your dogs away as much as possible, but unless they are a legitimate nuisance (e.g., raiding garbage cans, tearing up lawns, spraying pets) it might be most beneficial to leave them be.