Wildflowers can take on many different sizes and shapes. There is one native wildflower species that has a very unique shape. That species is the Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum [L.] Schott).
The Jack-in-the-Pulpit is a member of the Order Alismatales or Arales, the Family Araceae, the Subfamily Aroideae, and the Tribe Arisaemateae. The generic name, Arisaema, is Greek for “arum blood”. Aris or aridos is an unknown Arum plant. Arum is Arabic for “fire”. Haema, hiama, or haimatos is “blood”, which refers to the red berries or to the purple stripes upon the spathe. The specific epithet, triphyllum, is Latin for “3 leaved”.
Previous scientific synonyms for this species were A. accuminatum Small, A. atrorubens (Aiton) Blume, A. pusillum (Peck) Nash, A. quinatum (Nuttall) Schott, A. stewardsonii Britton, and Arum triphyllum L. Some botanists list all of these as separate species. They have now all been lumped into 1 species with many subspecies.
At different times and places, other common names for this plant were Adam’s Apple, American Arum, American Wake Robin, Aronskelk, Bog Onion, Brown Dragon, Cobra Lily, Cooter-Wampee, Cuckoo Plant, Devil’s Ear, Dragon Root, Dragon Turnip, Hopnis, Indian Cherries, Indian Cradle, Indian Jack-in-the-Pulpit, Indian Turnip, Iroquois Breadroot, Lady-in-a-Chaise, Lord-and-Lady, Lords and Ladies, Marsh Pepper, Marsh Turnip, Meadow Turnip, Memory Root, Northern Jack-in-the-Pulpit, Parson-in-the-Pulpit, Peck’s Jack-in-the-Pulpit, Pepper Turnip, Plant-of-Peace, Small Jack-in-the-Pulpit, Starchwort, Stewardson Brown’s Indian Turnip, Swamp Cherries, Swamp Jack-in-the-Pulpit, Swamp Preacher, Swamp Turnip, Three-leaved Indian Turnip, Thrice-leaved Arum, Thrice-leaved Indian Turnip, Tuckahoe, Wake Robin, Wampee, Wild Pepper, Wild Turnip, and Woodland Jack-in-the-Pulpit.
DESCRIPTION OF THE JACK-IN-THE-PULPIT
Height: Its height is 6-36 inches.
Stem: Its stem is single, erect, green, and branchless.
Leaves: Its leaves are opposite with 1-2 leaves and are each palmately compound with 3-5 leaflets. The size of the plant determines the number of leaves, with the larger plants having 2 leaves. Each leaflet is about 3-7 inches long and about 1¼-3 inches wide. They have smooth margins, pinnate veins, and pointed tips. The terminal leaflet is elliptical, oblong, or ovate; and the 2 lateral leaflets have sharp-angled and asymmetrical bases. These leaflets may be pale gray-green or shiny green below. The leaves all have long petioles. These leaves are rarely eaten by Insects (Class Insecta) or by Mammals (Class Mammalia), but may be eaten by Slugs (Class Gastropoda).
Flowers: Its flowers are all clustered at the base of a thick, fleshy, erect, solitary, club-shaped spike (spadix). This spadix is about 1¼-8 inches tall and is edged upon the outside. Each spadix is overtopped by an upright, 4-6 inch long arching, curved, showy, green and purple-brown striped, cup- or funnel-shaped, canopied bract (spathe). The spathe may deeply furrowed with green and white ridges and is yellow inside. The stripes upon the spathe get lighter toward the base, which helps guide the pollinating insects to the flowers.
These flowers are either unisexual or bisexual. The size and the age of the plant determine the sexuality of the plant. The largest and the most mature plants have both sexes, slightly smaller and younger plants have only female flowers, and the smallest and the youngest plants have either male or no flowers. Depending upon the previous seasons, the plant’s sexuality can change yearly. These changes helps build stable and long-lasting colonies. The male flowers consist of small, white, thread-like structures with 2-5 purple, cup-like anthers and light colored pollen. The female’s flowers consist of small, green, knob-like structures with 1 pistil and purple stigmas. If both sexes are present, the male’s flowers are located above the female flowers. With both sexes, the male flowers mature before the female flowers to avoid self-pollination. These flowers have no petals or sepals. Flowering season is March to July. Blooming period lasts about 2 weeks.
These flowers have foul fungus odors and no nectaries. They are pollinated by Beetles (Order Coleoptera), Flies (Order Diptera), and Fungus Gnats (Families Mycetophilidae and Sciaridae). Pollinating insects often get trapped at the base of the spathe. They cannot climb the smooth and slippery spathe and they cannot climb past the projecting edge upon the spadix. They can only escape through a small flap at the base of the spathe. Insects that can’t escape will die. Although this plant is not an insectivore, some botanists think this plant may eventually evolve into one.
Fruit: Its fruit consists of dense, cylindrical, oval clusters of ovoid orange red or scarlet red berries. Any green berries in the cluster are unripe. Each fruit has 1-5 seeds. Wood Thrushes (Hylocichla mustelina Gmelin) and Wild Turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo L.) consume these berries. Fruiting season is usually August to September.
Seeds: Its seeds are globose or ovoid with flattened edges, a short sharp tip, and rounded bottoms. Each seed is light red-brown, light tan, or white with a slightly wrinkled surface. They have a high germination rate.
Roots: Its root system has a thick, short, bulbous, fleshy corm with attached secondary roots. This corm stores the food and is largest in the fall.
Other plants can sprout from this tuberous corm. However, the offspring is genetically identical to its parent.
Habitat: Its habitats consist of rich, moist woodlands; thickets; woods’ edges; and borders of swamps, marshes, and streamsides. This plant is tolerant of deep shade.
Range: Its range covers most of the eastern U.S. and southeastern Canada as far west as the Great Plains. Southern Florida is excluded.
Jack-in-the-Pulpit is toxic. The berries, corms, and leaves contain raphides of microscopic needle-like calcium oxalate crystals. These embedded crystals can both mechanically and chemically irritate the mucous membranes and can burn and inflame the mouth and the throat. A large dose can cause severe gastroenteritis, salivation, irregular heartbeat, dilations of the pupils, watery eyes, slurred speech, fits, choking, coma, or even death. The sap can cause contact dermatitis to persons with sensitive skin.
Calcium oxalate is also found in kidney stones and in other vegetables. Persons subject to kidney stones should not consume those other vegetables.
During tribal wars, some tribes laced their meats with sap from this plant before retreating. It was hoped that the advancing enemy tribe would consume the poisoned meat and die.
The toxic roots had other uses. Some scientists used as the roots as an insecticide.
Both the Native Americans and the early European settlers had uses for the Jack-in-the-Pulpit. It was used for medicine and for food.
The roots were used as medicine. It was used as a carminative, a diaphoretic, an expectorant, an irritant, a purgative, and a stimulant. The root was used as a poultice for treating abscesses, boils, bruises, headaches, rheumatism, ringworms, sores, skin diseases, and wounds. Powdered roots were dusted upon the top of the head and the temples for treating headaches. A root decoction was used for treating sore eyes. A dried root tea was taken internally for asthma, bronchitis, colds, coughs, fevers, intestinal troubles, laryngitis, malaria, and tuberculosis. It was also used as a gargle for sore throats. Between 1820 and 1893, Jack-in-the-Pulpit was listed in the U.S. Pharmacopea.
The corms can be made edible. To break up and dissipate the toxins, the corms were dried for several weeks to over a year. They can also be roasted in low heat for long periods of time. Cooking and boiling may not be enough to destroy or remove the toxins. The dried corm can be eaten raw, sliced into thin chips, or ground into flour. The berries were boiled and added to game for food.
Some Native American tribes required their young men to consume a raw corm. This was a ritual for entering manhood.
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