by Josh Pulito
The return of spring wildflowers is one of the many reasons to get outside this time of year. While the jack in the pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) is not one of the earliest blooming wildflowers it is one of the most unique. Jack in the pulpit can be recognized by its three part leaves and flowers which are covered by a spadix and contained within a hood. In this plant the “pulpit” is the spathe or outermost part of the bloom that covers the spadix or “jack” which is the tube-like structure sticking up from the center of the plant which encases the flowers. Later in the season the plant will produce a bright red cluster of seeds warning of the presence of a poison called oxalic acid. Oxalic acid is harmful to animals if ingested but the plant is safe to touch.
My family has been playing a jack in the pulpit related game for over 30 years making this spring wildflower by far my favorite. The rules to the game are simple but must be strictly followed. To win you must find the first jack in the pulpit of the season in bloom. Jack in the pulpits tend to grow in moist, shady, seasonally wet locations. They are often found on the edges of trails through the woods. However, once you have found the flower your job is not done. Next you have to gently lift up the hood so that “Jack” is visible. Once you have located “Jack” or whenever meeting someone new or seeing someone again after a long time it is considered polite to introduce yourself. So to finalize your victory you must say “Hi Jack!” before lowering the hood or closing the pulpit. Finally, you must tell the other people playing the game that you have found and greeted “Jack”. If any step is omitted you cannot claim victory. I had a losing streak in my teens when I thought that I was too cool to talk to plants. Do not fall prey to this technicality. You must say “Hi!” to win. I have been playing this game with my mother for my entire life and we still play to this day. This year I received a text message complete with pictures and text detailing my total defeat. I received this message on Mother’s Day following an expensive lunch that I paid for. While I was disappointed to lose this year it couldn’t have happened on a better day than that reserved to honor a person who has given so much to me including a lifelong love of nature. This is a story that I often share when leading hikes with families in the spring time in hopes of passing along this fun seasonal tradition to others. If you should encounter a jack in the pulpit in your travels this spring please feel free to say hello. You just might find yourself eagerly hunting for your old friend “Jack” year after year.