1-7 May 2003

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One of the few disappointments about the land at Hilton Pond Center is that it was heavily farmed for a hundred years, perhaps longer. Previous tenants planted row crops such as corn and cotton, and at various times in the past century cattle grazed freely across the 11-acre tract. As a result, nearly all our native wildflowers were exterminated and have just begun to recover in the 21 years since the site has been allowed to "return to nature." The first returnees, of course, have been those whose seeds are wind-dispersed or that are eaten and later deposited--along with a little guano--by free-roaming birds and small mammals. Through the years we're tried to supplement this natural dispersal by planting--with varying success--a few native wildflowers to enhance natural diversity. This week one of those efforts paid off when a species with an unusual lifestyle came into bloom outside the office window at the Center's old farmhouse.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

Eight years ago we planted a half-dozen specimens of Jack-in-the-Pulpit beneath some dogwoods and a towering Southern Red Oak. Two of the jacks didn't make it through the first winter, and the other four seemed to limp along from year to year, sometimes flowering and sometimes not. Eventually two more transplants died, and we had just about decided this was one species that probably wasn't adapted to our poor, depleted soils. This year, however, we were surprised to see the two remaining plants put up their tallest-ever leaves. Perhaps the jacks had finally matured--or maybe it was this winter's drought-ending rains that helped the plants produce the biggest blossoms we had seen locally.

The inflorescence of a Jack- in-the-Pulpit is indeed unusual. It arises just above the soil level along with one or two thrice-divided compound leaves (above left). The bloom consists of a deep, cylindrical spathe--the "pulpit"--that bears alternating stripes of lighter and darker green; in some individuals there's a little purple thrown in (below right). Lifting the flap at the top of the spathe reveals our slender and round-headed friend "Jack," known better to botanists as the spadix. (We do not know whether someone named "Jack" was actually a clergyman, but the name "Jack-in-the-Pulpit" has been used for this plant for generations.)

At the base of the spadix will be one of two things: thread- like male flowers that yield yellow pollen, OR tiny green berry-like structures that are actually female flowers (pictured at below left with the withered spadix still attached after the dried spathe has been removed). Thus, a Jack- in-the- Pulpit plant is either male OR female, leading us to believe that at least some of the plants should be known as "Jill-in-the-Pulpit." Usually a jack that makes male flowers has only one main leaf (right), while female plants have two.

Jacks are pollinated by tiny fungus flies attracted to the flowers by faint odor that apparently mimics the earthy smell of mushrooms. Flies may be directed further into the spathe by its long stripes and lured to actual flowers at the spadix base by a bright and unpigmented area at the bottom of the spathe (top photo). Young foot-tall jacks--those with small rootstocks and little residual energy--do not bloom at all for a few seasons and in several ensuing years produce only male flowers; bigger and older plants typically serve as females capable of forming and nurturing seed-bearing berries. The two jacks now in bloom at Hilton Pond Center are both females, so unless our fungus flies are long-distance fliers, it doesn't look like any cross-pollination will be going on. Fertilized female flowers produce a cluster of bright green berries (right) that by summer's end turn a brilliant crimson (below left) that is sure to attract the attention of potential seed disseminators. Jacks are so easily propagated from seed that--like most native wildflowers--entire plants should never be collected from the wild unless to be saved from habitats threatened by development.

The specific taxonomy of Jack-in-the Pulpit, a member of the Arum Family (Araceae), is rather up in the air. Some botanists believe all jacks are just one species, Arisaema triphyllum, while others claim there are as many as three: A. triphyllum, A. atrorubens, and A. stewardsonii. In the Manual of the Vascular Flora of the Carolinas, Radford, Ahles, and Bell lump all three species into one, and that's the authority we use for our checklists here at Hilton Pond Center. A. triphyllum grows mainly in rich, low. moist woods over a vast area-- most of eastern and central North America--so it is reasonable that distinct varieties of jacks may have arisen without true speciation. Incidentally, although the jack's three-part leaf resembles that of the trilliums, the latter are in the Lily Family rather than the Araceae.

One of Jack-in-the-Pulpit's closest relatives is the rarely encountered Green Dragon, A. dracontium, which occurs across the Carolina Piedmont; it has a single leaf with 7-15 leaflets and a long, pointed spadix that emerges from a sheath-like spathe (right and below left). A nice stand of these plants is thriving at River Park near Rock Hill SC, in the Catawba River bottomland where conservationists have eliminated Chinese Privet and other competing invasive plants.

Like other arums, Jack-in-the-Pulpit has a heavy rootstock that stores food and contains buds that produce next year's leaves and flower. This corm is laden with so much oxalic acid that jacks are considered to be poisonous plants. When raw root and stems are ingested by humans, mucous membranes in the mouth are sometimes burned severely, and all parts of the plant can cause swelling of the tongue and severe gastric distress. Drying defuses the heat of the oxalic acid. Despite its alternate nickname of "Indian Turnip," we doubt that Native Americans made jacks a dietary staple; besides, the root is sometimes prescribed by herbalists to induce sterility--not something most tribes would have favored! The presence of oxalic acid may explain why one seldom finds Jack-in-the-Pulpit leaves chewed on by insects or other browsers.

Curiously, during poor growing years, an individual jack that has served as a female may revert to making only male flowers, while under especially good conditions long-time males suddenly become berry-bearing females. This potential for intermittent sex changes--which can occur several times over a plant's 20-plus-year lifespan--leaves us perplexed over the proper common name for our blooming Arisaema triphyllum. Ever mindful of being politically correct, at Hilton Pond Center we've decided to play it safe and henceforth refer to all our individual plants as "Jack-AND/OR-Jill-in-the-Pulpit."

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center
Red berry photo © Oklahoma Biological Survey

POSTSCRIPT: Patrick Polchies--a Maliseet Indian of the Kingscear First Nation who lives along the St. John River in New Brunswick, Canada--tells us his ancestors did indeed "use the roots of Jack-in-the-Pulpit, but certainly not for food! They would gather large quantities of the plant's roots along with wild onions, mash them together, and dump the mixture in a stream or a brook. This would stun fish in the waterway, allowing them to be collected easily at the surface by people downsteam of the dumping spot. I am unsure if fish actually have to ingest the root/onion mix or if the oxalic acid is stong enough to simply stun them. Sounds like an easy and effective way to get a meal!"

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

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held this year in Rock Hill SC.

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Be sure to scroll down for an account of all
birds banded or recaptured during the period,
plus other nature notes of interest.

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"This Week at Hilton Pond" is written & photographed
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Please report your sightings of

1-7 May 2003

Ruby-throated Hummingbird--1
Kentucky Warbler--1
Gray Catbird--2
Northern Cardinal--1
White-throated Sparrow--1
Yellow-breasted Chat--2*

* = New species for 2003

8 species
8 individuals

30 species
505 individuals

(since 28 June 1982)
123 species
42,619 individuals
(with original banding date, sex, and current age)
Carolina Chickadee (1)
03/29/02--after 2nd year male
Northern Cardinal (5)
11/17/95--9th year male

01/17/99--after 5th year female
04/23/00--after 4th year female
08/13/01--3rd year male
07/29/02--2nd year male
Tufted Titmouse (1)
04/18/02--after 2nd year male
Carolina Wren (1)
06/30/01--3rd year male

Kentucky Warbler
This adult female captured this week was only the 18th of her species banded at Hilton Pond Center since 1982. Kentuckys breed uncommonly across the Carolinas.

--A major windstorm (some TV meteorologists called it a "gust front" with 60-70 mph winds) barrelled through Hilton Pond Center on the afternoon of 2 May, blowing down most of the remaining "widow makers" (dangling limbs) broken off during last December's devastating ice storm. As might be expected, the biggest branches fell on mist nets; several net poles were bent and rendered useless but fortunately none of the much more expensive nets were seriously damaged.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

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