Jack in the Pulpit

20 Jan

Arisaema triphyllum

(Aris is an ancient plant name.  Haima is Greek for blood, alluding to blood stains on the leaves of certain species.  Triphyllum refers to the three-lobed leaf.)



John and I experience botanical addiction to the hinterlands of Kiplinger Nature Preserve, where this morning we tiptoed across the impenetrable Red-Maple-Poison Ivy Swamp and explored a vast isolated scrubby pine woods beyond the pale of human visitation…really.  Guarded on all sides by a formidable moat of water, mud, fallen trees, vines, and swamp.  Where can you go in Florida and see no sign whatsoever of human activity?



Red Maples suggest swampy woods farther north, where a favorite spring wildflower is Jack in the Pulpit, an oddball ranging from Canada southward to our area.   Isolated patches in Martin and Palm Beach counties are among its southernmost outliers.   We encountered Jack preaching in the Kiplinger mud.   Almost every wildflower fancier in the eastern U.S. and Canada fancies this species, and so do many gardeners.

The pulpit is a specialized leaf called a spathe.  It wraps around Jack very much like an old fashioned covered pulpit in some  churches.

Jack is a spadix,  that is,  a vertical spike dotted at its base with many tiny flowers.   Having a spathe and spadix is characteristic of the Aroid plant family, containing such favorites as Anthuriums, Calla “Lilies,” and Spathiphyllums.


By John Bradford

The flowers on any given spadix  are usually either all male, or all female, although occasionally mixed.     To make it weird,   the individual plant’s sex can change from year to year.   What determines the “sex of the year” remains murky despite repeated studies.   Bigger plants tend to be female  in contrast with smaller male plants, although there is environmental influence beyond mere size.    At least one researcher suggested that a female plant depletes its stored nutritional reserves by making fruits, so the following year it switches to the less demanding male role.


Jack exposed!  Male flowers at bottom.

What comes next needs more research.   The narrative is based on today’s species plus additional Arisaema species.   Not all researchers agree 100%.  So the following account is a semi-consensus likely to be accurate, still…no guarantees.

Although various floral visitors are on record, the plants seem adapted primarily to fungus gnats as pollinators.     Fungus gnats feed on fungi, so why hang around Jack in the Pulpit?  Jack has B.O. and smells like fungus.    The bare upper spadix emits a false-fungus gnat-lure fragrance.    Jack is a false prophet.

Gnats come looking for fungus.   If they enter the pulpit (spathe) surrounding a male spadix, they drop to the floor where pollen collects and get pollen-dusted.   At the base of the spathe is an exit door to let the gnats fly away bearing that dusty pollen.


Male pulpit,  stage left.   Female on the right.   Follow the gnat drawn to the false fungal fragrance.    The gnat escapes the male spathe through the door on the floor, and moves on to the female spathe, where it meets its end after delivering its pollen load.

When the gnats enter the spathe around a female spadix they fall in again, this time brushing their pollen onto the female flowers deep in the spathe.    The gnats yet again drop to the floor, but this time there’s no back door. They give their lives to complete the flower’s sexual cycle.


You can see the exit hole on the bottom left of the pulpit.

Is the plant carnivorous, benefitting nutritionally from its decaying victims? If so, nobody has shown it so far.



Posted by on January 20, 2017 in Jack in the Pulpit, Uncategorized


9 responses to “Jack in the Pulpit

  1. Leonore Alaniz

    January 20, 2017 at 11:26 pm

    Thank you for the description! Are you saying that one plant is female and another male? I had no idea. These plant peoples are fairly common where I lived in Leverett, in the airy woods, but one little stand of the Jacks/Jackies lived also under the canopy of a grand Black Walnut tree and shaded by a certain Ceder. No maple nearby at that site, but plenty elsewhere. This plant is worthy our observation weeks after it blooms, into its fruiting stage. I like the looks of the bright red “berries” that emerge along the spadix some weeks after the flowering stage. The smallish bulbous roots were eaten by Indigenous people I read. They look starchy when cut open. Never tried to eat one, but certainly printed with most of the plant parts, incl the root.

    • George Rogers

      January 21, 2017 at 9:01 am

      Morning Leonore, I remember seeing nice Jacks and Jackies (love it, thank you!) in Massachusetts, where botanizing is so much fun. Thanks for mentioning those scarlet fruits. Oddly, I’ve not seen berries in FL, or almost never. Being a little scarce, maybe the critters get them efficiently. Sure wish we had such a photo. And interesting add-on about indigenous peoples eating the fleshy underparts. The entire Aroid Family is loaded with toxin…yet so long ago pre-Europeans learned to remove the nasty. I’ll bet that slice of history is interesting. Thanks so much for ading to the story.

  2. theshrubqueen

    January 21, 2017 at 8:29 am

    Fabulous finale with the false fungus fragrance!

    • George Rogers

      January 21, 2017 at 8:54 am

      Hi Amaelia, Next time I see the spadix I’m going to sniff it, although a gnat’s nose and mine may differ.

      • theshrubqueen

        January 21, 2017 at 3:51 pm

        Instead of stopping to smell the roses?

  3. nopriors

    January 21, 2017 at 10:17 am

    Wonderful article George. So the B.O. wasn’t from me after all.

    • George Rogers

      January 21, 2017 at 10:23 am

      Oh my heavens, I’m so mortified, my grandchildren shun me, my friends won’t say it, my wife watches Dance Moms in a different room. I may have embarrassing F.O. (fungal odor)

  4. leolson24

    January 26, 2017 at 6:25 am

    I cannot believe you found this, it is such a beautiful, endangered, carnivorous plant!!! I thoroughly enjoy reading your blog and I find myself using it as a reference often.

    My family owns Bluefield Ranch Mitigation Bank (past Bluefield Preserve), 2900 acres of restored land in west Fort Pierce. I would love for you to come out and explore! Let me know if this is something you are interested in:)

    Laura Olson

    On Fri, Jan 20, 2017 at 11:00 PM, Treasure Coast Natives wrote:

    > George Rogers posted: “Arisaema triphyllum (Aris is an ancient plant > name. Haima is Greek for blood, alluding to blood stains on the leaves of > certain species. Triphyllum refers to the three-lobed leaf.) Araceae > John and I experience botanical addiction to the hinte” >

    • George Rogers

      January 26, 2017 at 7:50 am

      Laura, Thank you…and it would be exciting to come explore. I’m going out of town for a few days, until the end of January, and am sure that in the very near future we can come take a look. My e-mail is


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