Arisaema triphyllum, or Jack-in-the-Pulpit, is a herbaceous perennial plant growing from a corm. Also known as Bog onion, Brown dragon, Indian turnip, Wake robin or Wild turnip. This highly variable species typically grows from 12 inches to 2 feet in height and has three parted leaves with flowers contained in a club-like stem which looks like a hood – like a preacher in a pulpit. It is native to eastern North America, occurring in moist woodlands and thicket areas in the Bluegrass. Although this is a plant I would love to have in my gardens, I have tried – unsuccessfully – several times to get it to grow. I think it prefers its native habitat.
Jack-in-the-Pulpit can sometimes be confused with Poison Ivy, especially before the flowers appear. The leaf bracket – known in this plant as “the pulpit” – wraps around and covers over and contain a spike having small flowers on a fleshy stem – the “Jack.” The Jack is covered with tiny flowers of both sexes. In this plant’s early life, has both sexes, but most of the small plants are typically male. Once the Pulpit reaches a certain age will it produce female flowers.
Although this plant normally blooms from April to June, I’ve highlighted it for Weird Wednesday because of the bright red fruit now being seen in forest and moist meadows edges around the Bluegrass. Jack-in-the-Pulpit is pollinated by flies, attracted to Jack’s heat and smell. With the heat and humidity in Kentucky this spring and summer, we were swarmed with flies, so there are many fruit berries to be seen.
The fruit are smooth, shiny green, and about the size of a pea, clustered on the thickened spadix. Each berry produces from one to five seeds. After the fruit forms and dies, the plant goes dormant and waits for new plants to spring forth from the seeds. During a seeds first year, it will produce a plant with a single rounded leaf. Seedlings need three or more years of growth before they become large enough to flower. Jacks are not self pollinating since they are male dominate, so they need to be fertilized in order to produce female flowers.
WARNING: Jack-in-the-Pulpit is poisonous because it contains calcium oxalate crystals in all parts of the plant. Care should also be taken to avoid confusion with poison ivy, which has 3 leaflets somewhat similar in appearance. Eating the raw plant material can cause a powerful burning sensation, which will irritate the mouth and digestive system. On rare occasions the swelling of the mouth and throat may be severe enough to affect breathing.
So why use a plant that is poisonous? When dried and cooked properly, it can be eaten as a root vegetable. Native Americans used the dried roots as a treatment for sore eyes and made a tea to treat rheumatism, bronchitis, and snakebites, as well as to induce sterility.
As beautiful as Jack is, it is best grown in its native habitat, but if you feel the need to try it in your home garden, make sure no children come in contact with this plant.