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Mother Nature Monday: Jack-In-The-Pulpit

The Jack-in-the-Pulpit, Bog Onion or Indian Turnip was one of the first native plants I was taught to recognize when I was a child. It can be found blooming along both sides of the lower loop of the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest double loop trail during April and May.


Many guide books discuss how “Jacks” were once used as a food or medicine source. It was alleged that Native Americans and early settlers used it for a number of ailments. However, the raw herb causes a severe burning sensation because it contains needle-like crystals of calcium oxalate. The plant had to be dried or boiled to consume. When I say boiled, I mean boiled for a half hour, dump the water out, boil for another half hour in fresh water, dump the water out and boil a third time in fresh water! I would not recommend experimenting with this plant. Even if you were to try and collect the seeds you should wear gloves to prevent skin irritation.

It is such an unusual and striking plant. It’s Jack-in-the-Pulpit name comes from the fact that the spadex (Jack) is encircled by a leaf-like bract that surrounds and encloses the green, club-shaped spadex to form what could be imagined as a “pulpit”. The Latin species name is triphyllum means three leaflets. I love spotting the berries of this plant, produced by the female flower, in late August and September. They are a startling bright red/orange, that you can spot from quite far away. The seven or more berries are clustered at the base of what was the spadex and look a little like very fat kernels of corn on a corn cob.


An interesting fact about this special plant is that initially it produces only male flowers. In later years, the plant produces male flowers on top and female flowers on the bottom. The term is "hermaphroditic."


The Jack’s with female flowers can even trap insects! The plants are not, however, able to self-pollinate. That is because the male flowers mature and die before the female flowers mature. The timing is off for the single plant, so the female flowers end up being pollinated by the male flowers of another plant. The pollination is facilitated by small flies or gnats which are attracted by the flowers' mild scent. Woodland birds, such as wild turkey, eat the red, ripe berries and excrete the cleaned seeds in other areas, helping to spread the plants throughout the region. I assume the birds don’t experience heart burn!

Even more interesting, an individual plant can produce male flowers one year and female flowers the next, possibly alternating between male and female many times over its life cycle. It is thought that genetics and nutrition may affect these changes. Botanists are still learning about the complexity of the jack-in-the-pulpits. Does temperature and rainfall have an effect on whether a male or female flower (or both) appear on a given plant during a given year? There is still so much to learn.


I will suggest if you like to sketch plants, that the Jack-in-the-Pulpit is one of the most fun plants to try and draw. Take a pencil and sketch book with you along the trail and enjoy communing with a colony of “Jacks” in the early morning or late afternoon. The slanted light will bring out all the curves and straight lines in the flowers and fruit.

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