Wild Seed Project Native Plant Profiles: Jack in the Pulpit
Wild Seed Project: Returning native plants to the Maine landscape
May 2015

Distinctive perennial of damp, semishaded woods; ranges from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick to Manitoba, south through the Appalachians and west to eastern Texas.

By Pamela Johnson

Arisaema triphyllum is blessed, or cursed, with a litany of lively common names: bog onion (a traditional name shared with the dormant crown of some fern species), brown dragon, pepper turnip, Indian cradle, lord-and-lady, devil’s ear, wild turnip, lady-in-a-chaise, memory root, parson-in-the-pulpit, and, of course, Jack-in-the-pulpit, to list a few. The unusual shapes of Arisaema triphyllum’s “flower” and its root (technically a corm) inspire most of its appellations. Some names, like cuckoopint, priest’s pintle, and priest’s pint are scatalogical, and harken to the 1621 doctrine of signatures De signaturea rerum (The Signature of All Things) by Jakob Boehme (1575-1624). Medieval apothecaries, physicians and herbalists believed that a plant’s outward appearance reflected its internal virtues for medicinal application. Joseph Wood Krutch, in his 1965 Herbal, writes of Jack-in-the-pulpit:

No signature is more immodestly evident than that provided by the very phallic central column (actually a spadix bearing the small male and female flowers) and most of the popular names embody evidence, now somewhat obscured, that the folk imagination had deciphered the signature. Cuckoopint is short for Cuckoopintel, and Wake-Robin (though now gently poetic) was clear enough to those same Elizabethans who snickered when the mad Ophelia sang “For bonnie sweet Robin is all my joy.”[i]

Jack-in-the-pulpit and other members of the Arum family were “indicated” for sexual and reproductive complaints. We can titter like Shakespeare’s audiences, but for different reasons. We now understand that a plant’s chemistry, not its physical manifestations, might offer medicinal benefit. But it is important to recall the millenia’s-long reliance upon plants as a universally available, and democratic, pharmacopoeia. The glimmers of modern botany and medicine in the 17th and 18th centuries, and the Age of Reason, debunked the superstitions of plant signatures, though there was still faith in a divine purpose for the creation of plants. The preface to a 1789 edition of Nicholas Culpepper’s 1649 herbal recommends the book for “it resorts for every mode of cure to that infallible source prepared by God and Nature in the vegetable system; whence flows spontaneously the genuine virtues of medicine diffused universally over the face of the earth, where nothing grows in vain.”[ii]

We no longer believe that plants were created solely to cure human ills, though we still largely view the plant world anthropocentrically, for its use and exploitation by humankind. (Simplistically, for example: save the rainforests because their carbon sequestration will offset global warming, or they might harbor an as-yet undiscovered plant which will cure cancer.) Jack-in-the-pulpits should be admired for themselves alone. They are among the most easily recognized and beguiling wildflowers. Their life histories have a colorful tale to tell.

The genus Arisaema is another disjunct plant group with scant representatives in North American and most of its 180 species in Asia (January’s plant profile of Acer pensylvanica explains disjunction). Size and coloration differentiate the skewed populations to some extent; the genus’ requirements for moisture, soil rich in organic matter, and deciduous shade are identical, however.

In late spring small colonies may be found; and nearby a mature Jack-in-the-pulpit might display its exotic looking floral parts. The spadix or “Jack” is columnar, concluding with a sheath called a spathe, the “pulpit”. The spadix contains male or female flowers, or occasionally, flowers of both sexes. Pollinators crawl beneath the hooded spathe, down the spadix collecting pollen from the male flowers.

Pollination was thought to be performed by small flies or thrips (Ctenothrips bridwelli, Heterothrips arisaemae). But a 1980 study suggests that fungus gnats (Sciaridae and Mycetophilidae) may actually be the most effective pollinators, able to transport more pollen greater distances- essential for Arisaemas, which cannot be self-pollinated.

Jack-in-the-pulpits can alter the sex of their flowers in a generation, an adaptation that reflects the resources required to set fruit. If sufficient carbohydrates have been stored in the plant’s corm, a spadix that had male flowers may produce female flowers the following year: “Jack” becomes “Jill”. (Carol Gracie’s 2012 Spring Wildflowers of the Northeast[iii]gives a thorough explanation of the sexual mutability of Arisaemas.) Plants will also reproduce vegetatively by sloughing off cormlets from the main root, as well as by producing rhizomes or stolons. Therefore clusters of Arisaemas are clonal, with leaves, but few flowers.

Arisaemas have remarkably long lives (twenty years or more) for herbaceous woodland plants. Their fruiting displays are as stunning as their singular flowers. Thoreau extolled the plants numerous times in his journals, though he persisted in calling them arums even though the genus Arisaema had been established by the American botanist John Torrey (1796-1873) in 1843. In a September 1856 entry, Thoreau described the “arum’s” fruit as resembling “a very short thick ear of scarlet corn.”[iv] The image is perfect. The fruit is green, at first, then ripening to flattened red kernels of every hue- scarlet, orange, vermillion. Birds (wild turkeys and wood thrushes), rodents, and a few insects eat the berries. Box turtles, in southern New England’s woods, eat the fruit, and their gastric bacteria are thought to aid in seed germination.

There is a debate about Arisaema triphyllum’s different forms, and habitat preferences, and whether the variations indicate distinct species, or merely subspecies. Flora Novae-Angliae (2011) lists the rare Massachusettes species Arisaema dracontium, and three subspecies of Arisaema triphyllum.[v] While the taxonomists ponder and argue, May and June are wonderful months to walk in the woods and search for Jack-in-the-pulpits. Remember that trifoliate leaves also belong to poison ivy and trillium species, and all three plants may be found in the same habitats. Poison ivy leaves are lobed (notched) and the terminal leaflet is stalked. Arisaema leaves have an outer vein, parallel to the leaflet’s margin, missing in trillium leaves.

Arisaema’s foliage is not commonly browsed by mammals because the leaves contain concentrations of calcium oxalate crystals; bears and deer will eat the plants if other forage isn’t available. Removal of the leaves diminishes the plant’s ability to store food in its roots; the leaves will not regenerate. Non-native earthworms, now rampant in forests south of Maine, have severely altered soil structure and soil chemistry, and consume the roots of many treasured woodland plants; they do seem to avoid the corms and root zones of Arisaemas, perhaps because of the same toxins that deter deer from wholesale consumption of Arisaema foliage.

Arisaema seeds can be gathered judiciously in September or October (wear gloves to avoid skin irritation.) Choose a few of the fattest fruits- some fruit will not contain seeds. The pulp is easy to remove. Sow immediately outdoors.

[i] Krutch, Joseph Wood. 1965. Herbal. New York: G. P. Putnam’s sons: p. 42
[ii] Ibid: p.44
[iii] Gracie, Carol. 2012. Spring Wildflowers of the Northeast. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
[iv] Loewer, Peter. 1996. Thoreau’s Garden. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books.
[v] Haines, Arthur. 2011. Flora Novae Angliae. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.