Have you seen Jack in the Pulpit (
Arisaema triphyllum) blooming this spring? It is hard to spot because it is mostly green. It is found in moist forests and along swamp edges. It is a member of the Arum (
Araceae) family. Plants in this family have flowers that are borne on a stem called a spadix that is surrounded by a single modified leaf (or bract) called a spathe. Calla lilies and skunk cabbage are also in this family. Its common name is said to depict the preacher Jack (the spadix) in his pulpit (the spathe).
In her book
Naturally Curious, Mary Holland explains that this plant will change the sex of its flower in any given year based on how much food it has stored in the previous year. After a “lean” year, the plant will conserve its resources by producing a male flower, which takes less energy than the seed-bearing female flower. Another interesting thing about this plant is that it is easy for insects to crawl down to the flowers that are tucked in the bottom of the spathe, but it is more difficult for them to exit., so some become trapped. Female flowers clustered on the spadix look like small green berries whereas male flowers are white-ish and thread-like. If pollinated, the “pulpit” falls away revealing a bright red cluster of berries in the fall.
The berries and leaves of the plant are considered poisonous if eaten and can also irritate the skin because they contain calcium oxalate crystals. Native Americans ate the starchy corms of the plant after drying and cooking them to remove the toxins. Thus, this plant is also referred to as Indian turnip.