When I was a child, my favorite spring activity was to hunt for wildflowers in the timbered hills of my grandparents’ small farm in Iowa County, north of Marengo. My memory’s eye recalls as if it was yesterday, following my father through the dry brown fall leaves, and finding large swaths of May apples, smaller groups of spring beauty and dutchman’s breeches, and the occasional rare trillium. Although the Jack in the Pulpits were common and easy to find, I believe they were my favorite.
Jack in the Pulpit (also referred to as Jack-in-the-Pulpit, Indian turnip, or dragon turnip) is biologically named Arisaema triphyllum. The genus name comes from the Greek work aris meaning arum, and aima meaning red. The triphyllum means three-leaved. These perennial plants grow wild throughout eastern North America from Canada down to Texas. It is a spring woodland wildflower, generally growing 1 to 2 feet tall. The plant grows from a corm, and one to two stems, each with glossy leaves divided into three leaflets, rise on each plant. However, the plant’s claim to fame is the intriguing “blossom” which grows on its own stalk almost the same height as the leaves. It is a large cylindrical hooded structure about 3 to 4 inches tall and consists of a 2 to 3 inch long green “club” in the center (the Jack, or spadex) sitting in a tubular base with a hood (the Pulpit or spathe). The true botanical flowers are actually tiny green or yellow tinged dots that line the bottom of the spadix, not visible to a casual observer. The outside of the spathe is green, with purple/brown stripes inside the hood. In fall, the outer spathe falls off, the outer leaves die down, and the central spadix stands alone, becoming a cluster of bright red berries that can be eaten by birds and other animals.
These plants are not endangered and can be moved from private property with permission of the owner. They are also in many spring garden catalogs. They need shade and moist, organically rich soil. They will tolerate poor drainage and can be added to rain or bog gardens. If planting the red seeds, they should be fresh and soft and may take three or more years to come to flower. If harvesting corms, they should be planted 6 inches deep in the fall. The plants are not usually bothered by insects or diseases, but can attract slugs. They are best left undisturbed, after they have been established in your garden.
Native Americans knew the food and medicinal uses of this plant. You should be aware that the plant is poisonous raw. The raw corms contain calcium oxalate and can burn the mouth, and too much could lead to death. However, the Natives learned to properly slice, dry, and roast these corms, after which they can be eaten like potato chips, or crumbled to make a cereal or powder for making biscuits and cakes. The women of some Native American tribes used the powdered root in cold water, believing it prevented conception. Meskwaki Indians report that their ancestors would chop the raw corm and mix it with meat, leaving it for their enemies to find, eat, and be poisoned!
I moved several Jacks from my grandparents’ farm and planted them in a native plant garden at my home in Waterloo when I was young. They spread and spread. I would show them to neighborhood friends. One thing I loved, which is not reflected in any of my research for this article, but I clearly remember my father showing me, is that if you place your fingers gently on each side of the lower fresh spathe (or hooded flower) in the spring, and rub your fingers back and forth, you will hear a squeaking noise. My father would say, “Hear him preach!”
About 10 years ago, upon direction from our then director Mollie Aronowitz, I planted several of my Jacks in our Arboretum shade/hosta garden. At least two large clumps have been coming up each spring, one near each of the large locust trees. Can you find them?
Written by Pat McGivern