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)