“Who’s Jack Anyway?”

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Who’s “Jack” in the name of that wonderful spring wildflower throughout our region called Jack-in-the-pulpit?

Jack-in-the-pulpit has long fascinated naturalists, herbalists, botanists, and even artists.  Perhaps the most famous artistic depiction is Georgia O’Keefe’s oil-on-canvas portrayals that she painted in the 1930’s, sensuous renderings wherein O’Keefe believed that the most profound knowledge of the subject revealed its abstract form.

This native plant, also called Indian turnip, is unmistakable in our moist woods and bottomlands: an herbaceous perennial growing from a corm with trifoliate leaves and a flower contained in a spadix, or club, covered by a striped hood reminiscent of an old-fashioned pulpit.  Taken together, the spadix and hood supposedly look like a Sunday-morning preacher ready to deliver his sermon from his lofty podium to passersby.  To me, however, this other-worldly wildflower seems like a meeting place for woodland imps and naughty spirits.  Just a quick peek at its various names in folklore tells you that it’s held us spellbound for generations: Brown Dragon, Devil’s Ear, Dragonroot, and Memory Root.

Jack-in-the-pulpit blooms from April to June and is pollinated by gnats, flies, and mosquitoes attracted to its smell and heat, the production of which is typical of arums.  The fruit ripens in late summer and fall, turning from shiny green to bright red before the plant goes dormant.  Along with mayapples, trilliums, bluebells, bleeding heart, and Solomon’s seal, Jack-in-the-pulpit is a dramatic addition to our spring palette of wildflowers throughout the region.

Most folks do not know that Jack-in-the-pulpit has the extraordinary ability to change sexes from year to year, depending on its nutrition during the growing season.  If poor soil conditions, or if transplanted, then it will set male flower buds and one set of leaf buds.  If good soil conditions, it will produce female flower buds and an extra set of leaf buds, thereby increasing its ability to photosynthesize sugars and fortify its seeds with nutrients.  So one trifoliate leaf indicates a male flower and two trifoliate leaves indicate a female.  Perhaps then we should rename this wildflower as Jack-or-Jill-in the-pulpit!  Sexuality, it seems, is much more laissez-faire among the plant and animal kingdoms than our prudish tastes might otherwise prescribe for the economy of nature.

But who in the world was Jack?

I searched my botanical references and scoured on-line sources to no avail.  Then it dawned on me.  The name, Jack, is common in folklore: Jack-in-the-box, Jack o’lantern, Jack the giant slayer, Appalachia Jack, stingy Jack, even Jack Torrance in “The Shining.”  It’s a generic signal, if you will, for everyman.  First recorded in Europe in the 13th century, the name appeared in the United States in Virginia prior to 1800, signifying an ill-disciplined or mischievous young man, a trickster-hero often motivated by poverty, quick-witted, fussy, sometimes naïve, always successful.

So there’s Jack, standing in his pulpit, ready to wreck havoc on an unsuspecting world.  But what kind of mischief might he cause in this seeming innocent, even reverential, setting?

Let me draw your attention back to two other common names for Jack-in-the-pulpit: Dragonroot and Memory Root.  The first connotes fire.  The second portends something unforgettable.  Both are accurate descriptors of the horrific sensation you will have if somehow you eat the corm of this plant.  It’s a fire in your mouth that you will never forget!

Years ago, while standing in the middle of a West Virginia swamp, I was handed a large corm of Jack-in-the-pulpit by two so-called friends who raved about its exquisite flavor and then encouraged me to eat the darn thing … which I did promptly, completely, naively, regrettably.  Within moments, my mouth was under attack, thousands and thousands of tiny crystalline knives plunging into the moist lining of my cheeks and throat.  No matter how much spitting and gagging, I could not stop the fire in my mouth.  The pain continued for 5 or 10 minutes, eventually diminishing from an intense burning sensation to mild irritation and then to just a horrible memory.  My friends rolled with wicked laughter at my demise.

The chemical reaction in my mouth resulted from the water in my saliva mixing with crystals of calcium oxalate found in Jack-in-the-pulpit.  Even a small dose of calcium oxalate is enough to cause intense burning sensations.  In greater doses, however, these crystals can cause severe digestive upset, breathing difficulties, and even convulsions and death.  Recovery from oxalate poisoning is possible, but permanent liver and kidney damage may also have occurred.  Good grief, Charlie Brown!  It was a nefarious prank indeed that my friends played on me in that remote West Virginia swamp!

Its other name, Indian turnip, refers to its varied treatments by Native Americans for sore eyes, rheumatisms, bronchitis, snake bites and even sterility.  One account from the Meskwaki Indians, the “people of red earth” of Algonquian origin, maintains that they used the plant to poison the meats of their enemies.

No matter its usage by us humans, Jack-in-the-pulpit is an intriguing native plant with a long-standing mythology.  It also introduces a phantasmagoric beauty to our woodlands and swamps during the spring emergence of wildflowers.  Above all, it provides us with an important lesson about the natural world: like animals, plants have defenses to ward off their predators.  Let us all exercise caution when tempted to sample the emerging vernal banquet throughout the Roanoke Valley!

H. Bruce Rinker, Ph.D.
Science Department Chairman
[email protected]