May — Jack in the Pulpit

May is a great month. Birds are migrating, thunderstorms rumble through and wildflowers bloom in the forest. One of the coolest springtime bloomers is the Jack in the Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum). This perennial, found in dry to moist woods, quickly sends up its leaves and flowering parts in April and May to take advantage of the sun’s energy before those darn tree leaves intercept it.

It is difficult to describe the look of this plant, but let’s give it a go. Jack usually has two basal leaves that are each divided into three equal parts. The leaves may grow to two or more feet. The flowering structure, resembling a preacher “Jack” (spadix) inside a rolled-up leaf-like structure that resembles a cup or the preacher’s pulpit (spathe). The actual flowers are tiny little things located at the base of the spadix inside of the spathe. Okay, we tried. Check out the picture.

Interestingly, the spadix gives off an odor similar to mushrooms, which in turn attracts flies that pollinate the plant. One web site states the plant can change its sex from year to year based on the amount of energy it procured over the growing season. After pollination, the seeds within the ovaries grow and form bright red pulp around them, which serve as a reward to any creatures willing to distribute the ripened offspring. The bright red clusters of seeds draw attention to the plant toward the end of summer and into fall.

Readers who are very oral and need to taste everything should not indulge themselves when coming upon this plant. The plant contains microscopic calcium oxalate crystals that cause a powerful burning sensation and could result in lips and tongue swelling to the point of breathing impairment. In other words, the plant is poisonous. While drying and cooking can render the plant edible, let’s just not try it, shall we? For more information and photos of Jack, visit: