striped hood curving back
over a gold-spotted wand --
On my weekly walk in the woods last week, I'm surprised as I almost step on a Jack-in-the Pulpit growing in the middle of a clearing where a neighbor will be building a house. Near a blackened, burned stump, two Arisaema triphllum are in bloom amidst a little colony of smaller plants. These herbaceous perennials usually grow only in shaded woods, as this area once was for many years. However, the trees have been cut to make way for the house and no one told the wildflowers not to carry on. So there they are, in full bloom.
This wildflower grows in an interesting way. The part that we think of as the flower, the "Jack" in the "Pulpit," is actually a tall phallic stalk, or spadix, inside a hooded vase, or spathe. Aris is Greek for Arum, which means an amorphous phallus. Haima means blood. So Arisaema could mean blood relationship, that is, "akin to Arum." Or it may refer to the bright red berries that appear in a bundle on the stalk after the spadix dies back in autumn. Triphllum means three leaves, as each plant's single umbrella leaf has three pointed lobes. The actual flowers are tiny yellow dots covering the spadix, male on top, female below. This is a very sexy plant, as we shall see.
I want to save these wildflowers from the building that is going up soon. What to do? I'm tempted to dig them up immediately. One inner voice says, "Go home and get your hori-hori knife and a pot." Another voice says, "They're on someone else's property. You need to get permission first." When I get home, it starts raining hard, so my conscience wins that day. On Friday I get an email saying construction will begin in a couple of weeks. Yikes! I don't have the owner's email, so I send a message to his mother. No response.
On Saturday I take another chipmunk caught in our humane trap down to Pilgrim Creek to release -- same place as the last one, maybe they'll find each other. This time I take my hori-hori with me. One voice says, "It's alright to dig just one tiny plant, no one will notice, and you'll be rescuing a rare plant from certain destruction." The other voice says, "Don't do what you know is wrong." When I get near the clearing, I hear a low machine noise. Oh no, the owner is mowing with a brush hog! Fortunately, he hasn't reached the Jack-in-the-Pulpits. He stops when he sees me and I tell him about the rare wildflowers and ask if he would move them out of harm's way. He says, "If you want to do that, go ahead." Quickly I dig up two dozen plants and transplant them into my wildflower garden, a moist, shady spot with rich, slightly acid humus, in a circle of limestone blocks, safe from the mower.
Here we see the large three-lobed leaves, with the top of one spathe peeking through the gap between two sets of big leaves. Each corm gives rise to a stalk which splits to form the leaflets and the spathe.
Native Americans knew not to eat either the berries or the corms raw, as the calcium oxalate crystals cause burning in the mouth and throat. They did gather the roots, and removed the toxins by peeling, grinding, drying and roasting to make a bread or cereal, or slicing and roasting the wafers. After roasting, the roots have a chocolaty flavor. The Native Americans apparently did not roast the berries.
I'm looking at the tiny bulb-like roots and wondering how the Native Americans ever harvested enough for food. Even the two biggest blooming plants have a corm the size of an acorn. I notice that one of the corms has two little "horns" protruding from each side. This is how the plant propagates vegetatively, by sending out "cormlets." The other method is by sexual reproduction, with insects transporting pollen from the male flowers to the female flowers, which then form seeds. The "hood" protects the pollen from being dispersed by wind, while the separation of male and female flowers prevents self-fertilization. In addition, each plant has predominately either male or female flowers, which mature at different times.
On top of all this, the plant also engages in "sequential hermaphroditism." A seedling spends four to six years in a pre-reproductive state before it's big enough to produce flowers, which are male. In following years, as the spadix gets bigger, it starts producing female flowers, able to make fruit, some of which may contain viable seeds. Environmental conditions, such as available nutrients and supportive habitat, also determine the transition from male to female. I wonder if this is where Ursula Le Guin got the idea for sequentially hermaphroditic humans in The Left Hand of Darkness. It would be a very interesting way to live.
Environmental stresses will cause the plant to revert from female back to male, or even to its pre-reproductive state. I can't help wondering what global warming will do to these plants, along with so many others.