Sometimes Jack, Sometimes Jill, Arisaema triphyllum, can live to 100 years old.
She, two stems and six leaves, makes red berries, which were used by Native Americans to make red dye and which attract Wild Turkeys and Wood Thrushes.
Jack-In-The-Pulpits are perennials and grow each season from a corm, kind of like an onion. She will have bountiful corms early in the season and will grow to be over 14” tall while he, one stem and three leaves, is shorter, will have a smaller corm but will collect up energy in the corm later in the season. He could’ve been a she in the previous year.
Starch can be extracted from the corm, which was used by early American settlers to stiffen their clothes and by Europeans to make saloop, a drink popular in England in the 17th and 18th centuries before coffee and tea were imported.
It’s spathe, the “pulpit”, is green, hood-like and curvaceous, punctuated with vertical stripes which can be white, brown or purple.
Its spadix, or “Jack”, is usually a pale, cream spike inside.
In her 1906 book, Studies of Plant Life in Canada, Catherine Parr Strickland, commented “When deprived of poisonous acrid juices that pervade them, all our known species may be rendered valuable both as food and medicine; but they should not be employed without care and experience.”
Arisaema triphyllum is no exception; don’t try to eat the corms raw as its needle-shaped calcium oxalate crystals, called raphides, will sting painfully and clog up your kidneys. Corms can be edible but must be thoroughly dried, not boiled.
The plant, for all its warnings, is also an effective pain killer, duly recognized by Native Americans.
As with many woodland plants, do not take from the wild but buy from reputable sources. Gardens in the Woods in Framingham MA carries many woodland species for purchase. The Jack-In-The Pulpit does well in the shade garden, especially in a moist damp area. This beautiful plant specimen, planted with trillium and fern, makes for a very special display.