Tuesday, May 6, 2008


The following post is a Reprint from my March/April 2006 "Our Wild State" column in the South Carolina Magazine. This is one of the first plants that I've included in my sepia series and I'm really pleased with the way the image turned out. I can't help but be reminded of a cobra's hood when I look at the angle of the plant's spathe.

Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) Profile

Rising up from the damp forest floor, a strange “alien-like” plant has begun to unfurl itself in forests all across S.C. This botanical wonder redefines the imagine that most people have in mind when the word flower is mentioned: its smell isn’t sweet but fetid like carrion; its blooms are so tiny that they can barely be seen by the naked eye; and it is pollinated by flies instead of butterflies and birds. However, despite the aforementioned anomalies this “objet de nature” is a glorious plant worth seeking out and studying at ground level.

The Jack-in-the-Pulpit is a member of the Arum family of plants. While this name may not be familiar, most gardeners might be more familiar with its better known cousin the calla lily. Found throughout the world, Arums typically feature a flamboyant hood-like structure called a spathe—in this case the “pulpit” —which surrounds a pale spike called a spadix—our “Jack.” As with most Arums, Jack-in-the-pulpits can be male or female depending on its growing conditions and produces beautiful red berries at the end of its annual cycle.

Like many plants found throughout our state, the Jack-in-the-pulpit (nicknamed the “Indian Turnip”) was used as a food source by the Native Americans. However, it can cause severe stomach problems if ingested without being cooked first and will leave a lingering burning sensation in the mouth and throat. This plant should be considered poisonous unless properly prepared and is best to be enjoyed as a feast for the eyes.

The ideal time to look for the bloom of this unique plant is between April and June. Search areas where the moisture content is high such as stream banks and wet hardwood forests. There are several color variations within this species so be on the lookout for plants which range from a pale green to green with purple streaks. Because of this spectrum of appearances and other minute differences some scientists believe that this species should be divided into three sub-species. By autumn, the spathe (or hood) will likely be absent making discovery and identification much more difficult.

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