Jack-in-the-pulpit is one of the most unusual and easily identifiable native perennial plants. They can reach to 3 feet in height but most plants will be two feet or shorter. From near the ground level the central stem develops one or two leaves on very long round stalks. New emerging shoots are spike-like covered by a protective sheath.
Leaves: The leaf is tri-parted with ovate segments that have an obtuse base and a tapered tip to a point. These leaflets are usually stalkless or on a very short stalk. There is one central midrib vein with laterals branching to the leaf edge but not quite reaching the edge, instead ending a a vein that encircles the leaf. Leaves turn perpendicularly upwards from their stalk to face the sun. Those plants producing fruit will usually have two leaves.
The inflorescence is a scape (a single flower stalk that arises directly from the underground root) which is shorter than the leaf but rises from the same sheath as the leaf. The flower parts are a cylindrical spadix (the 'jack') that has flowers only on the lower part. The spadix is blunt on top and is shorter than the spathe (the 'pulpit') which rises around the spadix and is wider at the top and arches over the spadix forming the 'pulpit' shape.
The flowers which are only on the lower part of the spadix are yellow to green, very small, without corollas or a calyx. Sexes are separated, either on separate plants or on the same plant. Male flowers have several stamens and female flowers have a single pistil. Female flowers are crowded tightly together. When both sexes are on the same spadix the female flowers are below the male flowers. The spathe is prominently veined, often with purple tinges.
Fruit: The female spadix develops into a cluster of green berry-like fruit, turning a brilliant red by August. The fruit cluster is frequently the only residue of the plant seen in Autumn. Each fruitlet usually contains 2 5mm seeds, sometimes only one. Seeds are round with a concave top and slightly flattened on one side. The surface is finely reticulated. Seeds take two years to germinate as they require a cold moist period, followed by a warm moist period, then another cold moist period. Each period at least 60 to 90 days. If stored, them must be kept moist. For more details see Eloise Butler's' notes on this plant below.
Habitat: Jack-in-the-pulpit prefers to grow in partial sun to full shade in moist woods, accepting moisture levels from wet mesic to dry mesic. Dappled sun is preferred during flowering. The fresh plant is toxic (see notes below). The plant grows from a round, flattened rhizome, usually referred to as a 'corm'. The corms can produce offsets to start new plants and the plant will also self-seed from mature berries.
Names: The genus Arisaema is derived from the Greek 'aris', a name used by Pliny the Elder, and 'haima', meaning 'blood', referring to a reddish coloring on certain species. The species triphyllum is from the Latin meaning '3-leaved'. The author for the plant classification - ‘Schott’ is for Heinrich Wilhelm Schott (1794-1865), Austrian botanist who did extensive work on the Araceae family. His last position was director of the Imperial Gardens at Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna. He modified the original classification of '(L.)' which refers to Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), Swedish botanist and the developer of the binomial nomenclature of modern taxonomy.
Comparison: There is one other plant that resembles this species; that is Green Dragon, Arisaema dracontium, which is also found in Minnesota. There the spadix is tapered at the tip, not blunt and it is usually longer than the spathe. There have been reported a number is sub-species or varieties of A. triphyllum, but current authorities such as Flora of North America and the U of M Herbarium do not recognize many of these but rather treat them as part of a single species that has much variability.
Above and below: The early development can occur in late April to early June, depending on seasonal weather. Fruit producing plants will typically have two leaves. 3rd photo above - new shoots emerging with their protective sheaths mottled like snake skin.
Below: Leaf structure - note that lateral veins do not reach the leaf margin. Plants with two leaves will usually bear fruit if the sexes are on separate plants and a male plant is nearby, otherwise with sexes on the same plant fruiting will usually occur.
Below: The small flowers develop into large green berries which turn a brilliant red in late summer. Most are eaten by birds and small mammals.
Below: The 5mm seeds. Note the finely reticulated surface.
Notes: Jack-in-the-pulpit is indigenous to the Garden area. Eloise Butler catalogued it on May 31, 1907. Additional Garden plantings were made in later years. Martha Crone noted planting it in 1933, '34, '38, '45 and specifically noted planting 77 plants in 1935, 40 in 1937 and 56 in 1939. Susan Wilkins added plants in 2009. Found throughout Minnesota in moist woods in all but a few scattered counties of the southern part of the state. Its most westerly range in the United States is the line of states from North Dakota south to Texas.
Eloise Butler wrote: "Better known members of the Arum family are Calla (Calla palustris) and Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum). In the case of the Jacks, the upper part of the fleshy flower axis is naked and is used as a support of the roof of the pulpit, or spathe. The small, simple flowers at the base of the axis are without floral leaves and are usually separated, namely, some of the Jacks bear only pollen producing flowers, and others, which in the course of time will develop seeds. The leaves of the Jacks are branched and made up of three leaflets. The seed-producing Jack usually bears a pair of these branching leaves in place of the one carried by the pollen-bearing Jack.
The individual producing the seed must manufacture food for storage in them as well as in the onion-shaped, subterranean bulb, which gives another name - Indian turnip to the plant. The Indians used the turnip, after pressing out the poisonous sap, as a farinaceous food. Jack-the-Jester has, of course, the reputed wisdom of former times; but you’ll get no drippings of it, unless you frequent the sanctuary of the wilderness. But even as a preacher, he cannot refrain from some foolish pranks. No one would be astonished to find, as is sometimes the case, two Jacks fraternally occupying the same pulpit; but an observer was doubled up with laughter to see a Jack holding forth in two united pulpits. Only the student, or one versed in wood lore, would recognize Jack, when he first pricks through the ground, in the form of a slender, slightly curved, sharp-pointed bud, with a protective sheath mottled like snake skin. Again, but few connect the last stage of seed-bearing Jack with the crowded bunch of bright red berries so common in late summer." (Published in the Sunday Minneapolis Tribune May 14, 1911) (read full article.)
Toxicity: Parts of the fresh green plant are toxic. It is a violent irritant to the mucous membrane if chewed and if taken internally it causes violent gastroenteritis, which may end in death. The berries are not palatable due to the presence of calcium oxalate, but could probably be made edible if pulverized and dried for a long time (Ref #6 - see next note).
Lore and Uses: The plant material contains calcium oxalate crystals, which will produce a burning sensation shortly after eating, if not properly prepared. The root has been used for several purposes but it must be dried first. When fully dried the acridity is made inactive. It can then be used to make a wholesome flour with a suggestion of cocoa flavor. Densmore (Ref. #5) reports its use in solution as a wash for sore eyes. Several early writers such as botany and medical pioneer Jacob Bigelow and also Horace Kephart, attest to early medicinal uses.
Botanist Merritt Fernald writes (Ref.#6) about Bigelow's recipe for making the flour. Bigelow discovered that boiling the root had no effect on removing the crystals as the acrid principle had "no affinity for water", instead he peeled and pulverized the root and repeated washed the mashed root, which removed large amounts of starch from which he made the flour. Fernald himself learned that simply thinly slicing the root and letting it air dry for weeks, removed the principle and then a flour could be made. See his text for details.
Cultivation: The plant will self seed via bird droppings. You can sow seed yourself in the fall as soon as the fruit and seeds are ready but it will be the second spring before above ground growth is seen. The plant can also be transplanted in late summer to early fall. Commonly found at most native plant nurseries.
References: Plant characteristics are generally from sources 1A, 32, W2, W3, W7 & W8 plus others as specifically applied. Distribution principally from W1, W2 and 28C. Planting history generally from 1, 4 & 4a. Other sources by specific reference. See Reference List for details.
Identification booklet for most of the flowering forbs and small flowering shrubs of the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden. Details Here.
Friends of the Wild Flower Garden, Inc. Text and photos are by G. D. Bebeau unless otherwise credited. "www.friendsofthewildflowergarden.org"