Sometimes the greatest rewards from gardening come without us even lifting a trowel.
Right now, in my “Boulder Rock” garden, tucked behind a peony and a hosta, is an unusual guest that’s been maturing over the past few years. Having determined it wasn’t just a weed, I’ve left it, undisturbed.
It’s a jack-in-the-pulpit. A native woodland plant found as far north as Nova Scotia all the way south to the everglades of Florida, Arisaema triphyllum is considered to be a single species with three subspecies, according to Wiki.
I’ve been familiar with jack-in-the-pulpit since I was a boy. As boys will do, my friend Dennis and I were often in the woods of Vermont and I can remember finding jacks frequently, along with the occasional lady’s slipper as well as the big maroon-flowered trillium. We always got a kick out of trillium’s nickname, Stinking Benjamin, and would hunker down to get a whiff of the slightly acrid-smelling blossom.
I’m guessing it was my Dad who originally identified these plants for me, and he apparently also instilled that these plants were special because Dennis and I never picked or disturbed them in any way. I can’t say the same for all the ferns, skunk cabbage or little orange newts we’d come across and decide to chop, whack or take captive (respectively). Lady’s slippers and jack-in-the-pulpits particularly were left to observe and admire in the quiet of the woods.
Jack’s got many other common names: bog onion, brown dragon, Indian turnip and American wake robin. It grows from a corm in rich, moist soil primarily in deciduous forests.
I’m guessing mine is a remnant from when our Dublin property was mostly wooded before my partner and I decided to open up the whole property and let the sunshine in. Arisaema triphyllum prefers light shade and I think mine continues to flourish due to the much faster emerging peony and hosta that mostly protects it from blasting rays.
I read three articles online about Jack including Wiki, a plant of the week feature on the USDA site and “Jack-in-the-Pulpit” on the St. Olaf College site (wp.stolaf.edu/naturallands/woodlands/ephemerals/jackinthepulpit/). Its three-leaved stem is often mistaken for poison ivy until it sends up its flower which is green with an underside that matures to a darker purple or brown striped “hood” (the spathe) which encircles the spadix.
The spathe flaps over the top of the spadix, creating a structure that resembles a preacher in his pulpit waiting to deliver a Sunday sermon. In my mind, I’ve always thought Jack looked like some type of carnivorous plant but it’s not.
The spadix eventually produces tiny male and female flowers embedded in its surface. Interestingly, the male flowers die before the female flowers mature so that plants rely on tiny flies to pollinate from other nearby jacks, ensuring the species stay strong. Jack-in-the-pulpits are easy plants to propagate if given the rich, moist, semi-shaded conditions required.
There’s some debate about the toxicity of Jack. If eaten raw, the plant contains an acidic calcium oxalate that causes a burning sensation in the mouth. Wiki shared some lore about the Meskwaki Indians chopping up the corms and mixing it in with flavored meats, leaving it out to attract their enemies to a feast, only to wind up with swelling in their throats and eventual death.
Other Native Americans learned that by cooking the roots of the plant, they actually can be consumed as well as used medicinally for various skin ailments. In its raw vegetative state, it’s probably best to handle Jack with gloves on.
I’m just going to leave Jack right where he is, though. He is spreading a bit in the garden but I’m guessing his need for shade will keep him controlled behind the peony.
Note: If you decide to move some jack-in-the-pulpit into your own woodland garden, patience is required. In its first year, Jack only produces leaves. His second and subsequent years, however, will present you with a mature, mysterious little preacher delivering a silent sermon over the rest of your garden.