Jack or Jill in the pulpit?

A brief and comforting glimpse into our snowless future, from Bill Dunson:

I imagine most of you are familiar with the Jack-in-the-pulpit which is a not uncommon wildflower in wet woods of eastern North America. However I doubt if any of you have encountered this interesting member of the arum family on Feb. 7 in bloom as I did today at Lemon Bay Park in Sarasota County, FL. Taylor lists it as missing from Sarasota County which indicates how special this fresh water swamp is on the shore of Lemon Bay.


The pulpit or spathe surrounds the spadix (Jack and/or Jill - let us not be male chauvinists!) which holds the flowers. They are fertilized by flies attracted to the odor and heat of the flowers. Remember that their cousin skunk cabbage (also an arum) has a similar means of attracting pollinators. Young plants tend to have all male flowers; there are more female flowers as they age. Indeed some studies have shown that the predominant sex of the flowers is determined by the condition of the plant. If it has been a good year and the plant is healthy and has a good supply of nutrients in its bulb, it becomes female. In a bad year it produces male flowers. Why do you suppose this could be a good strategy for reproduction? Consider that it is "cheaper" to be a male and produce a lot of pollen to fertilize other plants. Producing fruits with seeds is a lot more expensive in terms of energy and a poor year could result in very few prospects for reproduction in female mode.


Pulpits (Indian turnip) can be eaten if properly prepared, but contain calcium oxalate crystals and other toxins that are poisonous. Fruits are bright red and are presumably eaten by birds and dispersed.


So watch out for the marvelous if somewhat sexually confusing Jack/Jill in the Pulpit in early Spring in your area.

Bill Dunson
Englewood, FL & Galax, VA



And a follow-up story from Bill:
On a second visit to my pulpit site in a freshwater swamp I noticed a difference in the distribution of male and female plants. There seemed to be a correlation between sunlight forest canopy gaps (mostly red bays here as an over-story) and the presence of more large, female plants (which have two leaves). The male-flowering plants only have one leaf and thus fewer resources available. I also opened the bottom of the spathe to see the actual flowers clustered at the base of the spadix (see photos). There is quite a difference in appearance of the two kinds of flowers.
Pulpits seem to be a common member of the early-blooming wildflower community so look for them in damp areas (boggy spots or north-facing wooded slopes) along with May-apples in your area. Note that May-apples have a similar resource-based flowering in that only plants with two leaves will flower. A similar phenomenon occurs with ginseng in that a minimum number of leaves is necessary for flower and fruit production.


Bill Dunson