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