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Through the Woods: Jack in the pulpit



Jack in the pulpit is a beauty but beware, they’re poison to people. Photo contributed

WHAT A UNIQUE PLANT that entertained children and intrigued adults for years. My mother loved taking us small children for walks through the fields and woods on our family farm. She loved plants and would point out the ones she recognized along the way. Jack was a particular favorite of us all, and we would stop, look at the green and maroon striped flap (spathe) above him, and peer in.

Their location was always in shaded wet areas of our woods and were pleasant places for a walk. My mother may have been looking for a bit of relief from work and a good learning opportunity for us. Walks also kept us out of boredom and mischief at home and used up our restless energy.

The Jack in the pulpit plant, Arisaema triphyllum, is found in Eastern North America, occurring in moist woodlands and thickets from Nova Scotia west to Minnesota, and south to southern Florida and Texas. Jack grows about 6-12” tall in spring to midsummer varying with moisture and temperature conditions. Three green leaves grow from corms buried in the acidic soil. The flowering portion is Jack (possibly should be called Jackelyn?) under the spathe hood, which has flowers on the club-like spadix. This plant is pollinated by insects and dies back to eventually form a stalk with a cluster of bright red berries in the fall. This plant contains calcium oxalate and is poisonous and should be handled with gloves. Fortunately, I had no problem with my mother’s walks.

Native Americans had many uses for the in-ground corms, covering everything from cooked food to contraceptives. The early English referred to it as Indian turnip, bog onion, wild turnip, Indian onion, marsh turnip, swamp turnip, meadow turnip, pepper turnip, and wild pepper, and the corms were thoroughly cooked. Deer and other animals avoid Jack and poisoned persons should contact poison control and go to an emergency room.

My personal belief is we should avoid using plants like this. In fall birds eat the red berries. It is a native plant that some add to their gardens. This is fine if you understand Jack and pets and children will be protected from it. We probably won’t find it at this time of year, but we can look forward to seeing the green then red berries on our fall walks. Leave them for the birds and enjoy this bright accent in the moist fall woods.

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