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Jack in the Pulpit

Jack in the pulpit plant

Arisaema triphyllum is a plant with many names: bog onion, American wake robin, brown dragon, Indian or wild turnip. It grows quickly in the spring before the trees leaf out to do as much of their growth before the leaves unfold and shade the flowers on the dark forest floor.

They are widely distributed from Eastern Canada to Minnesota and South to Texas and Florida. There are variations depending on location and 3 sub species are generally recognized. Jack in the pulpit has had a number of scientific classifications, so has many scientific names.

Jack in the pulpit leaves have 3 lobes and the leaves grow in groups of three. They all come from a single longer stem arising from an underground corm.

Corms are modified underground plant stems used for storage. They are helpful to the plant to allow it to survive dry or unfavourable periods and come back the next season. Bulbs, like onions, have many layers. Corms are quite solid and not made up of layers.

The corms have been used as food but they need lots of preparation. In particular the corm must be dried to disable the Oxalic Acid that makes it poisonous. Here is a link to a page which talks about identifying and preparing Jack in the pulpit corms to eat. Eat the Weeds and other things too.

The plants like moist shady areas and sometimes grow in the same environment as poison ivy which they resemble before Jack's flower comes out. Their stem is softer while poison ivy is hard.

Jack in the pulpit plant in early spring

Life Cycle

Jack in the pulpit have a complicated sex life. A seedling growing either from from a vegetative cormlet or a fertilized seed grow three to six years in a pre-reproductive, vegetative form. When the corm has reached a sufficient size, the plant will flower but the first flowers produced will be male flowers and will only produce pollen. As the plant grow and makes a gradually larger plant and the corm grows, the larger spadix will begin to produce female flowers. It can then produce seeds and a cluster of berries.

Early spring photo of a just emerging Jack in the pulpit plant.

Jack in the pulpit plants

A more nutrient rich soil or brighter area accelerate the growth and shortens the period of transition between male plants into female plants. If conditions become more difficult due to lack of nutrients or stress such as drought, the female plant revert back to their earlier male form or even back into their pre-flowering state. This cycle (called sequential hermaphroditism,) makes sure that the plant is strong enough to reproduce and produce healthy seeds. It stops the plant from using up too much energy in difficult times and allows it to survive to the next hopefully better season.

The corms are long lived for this reason.

Jack in the pulpit also reproduces by making buds or cormlets on its corm. These cormlets grow vegetative plants and eventually in a few years the corm becomes large enough to produce female flowers and reproduce sexually.

The flowers are shaped irregularly and grow to a length of up to 3 inches long. They can be light green sometimes quite dark green and can also have lovely purply brown and green stripes The enclosure (the pulpit) is called a spathe. It wraps around and makes a roof for the spadix (Jack).

Jack in the pulpit berriesJack in the pulpit mature berries

The lovely bright red berry clusters are easy to spot in the fall if you take a walk in the woods. They start off small and green but gradually get larger and turns bright red. They are produced from fertilized female flowers on the spadix. When the spathe (the pulpit parts) are finished and shrivel off, a small green cluster of berries develops from the spadix (jack,).

Each berry will have 1 to 5 or so seeds in it. If you decide to try and grow the seeds you will need to give it a cold period. One way is to plant your seeds in the fall and let nature take its course. You can also put the seeds in damp peat moss or damp sand, not wet, and put this in the refrigerator. over the winter. In the spring plant your seeds in soil and grow in a shady area. It will of course take several years to produce a flower.

The plant is not self pollinating. You will need several plants in order to produce seeds. Don't forget that it takes a few years to get flowers and at first the seedling will not look like mature Jack in the pulpit plants.

All parts of Jack in the pulpit plants are poisonous because of oxalic acid.


Jack in the pulpit are well suited and quite tough but they have trouble competing with some of the more aggressive plants. Virginia creeper is capable of smothering your jack in the pulpit out of an area. By shading the forest floor where the dappled light is enough to keep them going, they gradually weaken the Jack in the pulpit plant and it gradually disappears.

Other invasive plants such as Vinca will do the same.

Uses and Legends

Most plants with unusual shapes have stories told about them and are often given mysterious powers. Divining of jack in the pulpit seeds were said to predict an injured person's or in some stories sick person's life or death.

The juice of the berries is said to reduce the pain of an injury if the juice is applied to a wound. NOT TAKEN INTERNALLY.

The plant is said to be contraceptive and if taken in large enough quantity is alleged to cause sterility. No official scientific backing supports this and there are lots of cheaper and easier contraceptives. Don't try this folks.

Another story told of Jack in the pulpit is that local tribes would leave meat poisoned with Jack in the pulpit behind for their enemies to find.

If you are in Canada you can buy Jack in the Pulpit Corms and seeds from Fuller plants.

Here is how to grow Jack in the Pulpit from Seeds. One year I collected seeds and they grew well. Here is how I did it.

Small Print

This information is for general knowledge. Jack in the pulpit is poisonous, don't eat it unless you know what you are doing. Don't pick it just for fun. This will weaken the plant and gradually it will die.

email: Christine