Dull green deeply veined leaf (male flowers have 1 leaf, female flowers have 2 leaves).
Family: Arum (Araceae)
Height: To 3’ (90 cm)
Flowering: April - June
Habitat: Moist, Shady, Deciduous Wooded Areas
Toxicity: Do Not Ingest
Jack-in-the-Pulpit is a very appropriate name for this unusual wildflower. “Jack” refers the light-green spadix which sits in a darker green spathe. The spathe looks like an old fashioned pulpit, that curls around the spadix forming an overhanging baffle. Taken together the plant looks like a Sunday-morning preacher ready to relate his sermon to any passing observer.
The genus name is a combination of two Greek words, aris and haema meaning blood. This likely refers to the color of the ripened fruit produced by the flower. Triphyllum means “three-leaved”, which has obvious connotations.
Bog Onion, Marsh Turnip, Indian Turnip: Though the plant is poisonous and should not be consumed, Native Americans found a way around its toxicity by gathering, roasting, and drying the tap roots, which resemble a turnip. Starch is a chief constituent of the root, which complemented the diet of the Native Americans.
Brown Dragon, Devil’s Ear, Dragon’s Root, Pepper Turnip: Refers to the calcium oxalate crystals contained in the roots which, when eaten, cause a violent burning sensation. Calcium oxalate is the chief reason why Jack-in-the-Pulpit should not be eaten raw.
Starchwort: Refers to a starch made from the corms used to stiffen clothes.
Wake Robin: The flowers are said to bloom at the time of the Red Robin’s return.
The design of the plant is very important for protection. The spathe which covers the “pitcher” of the plant protects the flower that is hidden inside at the base of the spadix. This prevents the tube from filling up with rainwater, which would wash away the pollen. Insects, especially gnats, are drawn into the spathe by a fungal smell emitted by the plant. They are attracted to the color of the pollen which covers the floor of the chamber. Because the tube is slippery, insects have a hard time leaving. There is a small flap formed by the leaves that smaller insects can fit through to complete pollination. Larger insects, including flies, however get stuck and often end their life in the base of the plant. Though the
shape and design of the plant mimics that of a pitcher-plant, Jack-in-the-Pulpit is not carnivorous.
The plant is also able to change sex. Most plants are males that become female in favorable conditions. Because the responsibilities of the female plant (seed production) require strength, plants may never become male or revert back if conditions suddenly change.
Jack-in-the-Pulpit is a member of the Arum family. Arum is Arabic meaning fire. Anyone who has ever eaten the plant raw can tell you the significance of this name. Jack contains calcium oxalate crystals, a powerfully bitter substance that causes a violent burning sensation when taken internally. Calcium oxalate crystals bear microscopic needles that both cut and poison flesh. The poison burns the mouth and throat causing blisters that lead to swelling. If too much is taken internally, the throat can swell leading to choking and suffocation8. Consequently, Jack-in- the-Pulpit is considered dangerous and should not be eaten raw.
However, when prepared properly, the toxic effects of the plant may be removed. In small doses, the powdered root was used by many Native American tribes to treat a variety of maladies. Chippewa Indians used it for sore eyes and Mohegans developed a liniment oil and throat soother from the powder. It was also used to treat croup, whooping cough, asthma, and other respiratory illnesses. Powdered rhizomes were also used by the Pawneeds as an ineffective headache medicine.
Parts of the plant were also used to treat external sores. The corm of the plant, for instance, was made into a poultice that was applied topically. The poultice was also used to reduce inflammation and ease swollen joints associated with rheumatism.
Food Source: The corm of the plant was used by Native Americans as a source of food. The roots roasted and dried for six months, were found to be edible. The roasting process removes the acridity of the plant revealing it to be a good source of starch. After proper preparation the root was peeled or ground to make bread. Other tribes shredded the chocolate-flavored root and boiled it with berries. This mixture was used to marinate venison. Today recipes exist for Jack-in-the-Pulpit cookies and potato chips utilizing the roasted root.
Starch: The corms were also pounded to make starch used to stiffen clothes. The starch, which was made from raw portions of the plant, was harsh on skin. Reportedly after using the starch one’s hands would become blistered and swollen.
In order to officially enter into manhood, several Native American tribes required young men to eat parts of the plant raw.