Jack in the Pulpit



Arisaema triphyllum

Arisaema triphyllum, or Jack-in-the-Pulpit (sometimes called cobra lily) is an interesting shade-dwelling flower that lives in Eastern North America, it’s one of my favorite plants here in CT because it looks so tropical.

Jayce and I go on a lot of nature walks, especially on my lunch break.  A few feet down the road from my office is a beautiful park with a thick Hemlock forest ripe for investigation.

I’ve learned recently to look down, especially in the spring.  So many plants are beginning to come up, you’re bound to see something new.  While Jack-in-the-pulpits aren’t new to me, I saw six surrounding me and it inspired further research.

What’s exciting to me is the unassuming nature of the plant; at first glance it looks like poison ivy, or something even less sinister, but at the right angle the beautiful and intricate flower is revealed.

Take a few moments in a shady overgrown forest in the early spring, look a little lower than usual and you’ll see Jack-in-the-Pulpits everywhere!  I think you’ll feel the same excitement I do.

Identifying Jack-in-the-Pulpit

It gets is common name, Jack-in-the-Pulpit, based on its irregular shape.  The flower forms a cup for Jack to sit in with a hood over the top.  Scientifically speaking; the spathe (the cup that forms the pulpit) wraps around the spadix (Jack).  There he sits until forming bright red berries that last through the late summer and into early fall.

The plant has three leaves and in its earliest stages can be confused with poison ivy, so best not to touch these until the flower forms.

Jack-in-the-pulpits grow to a height of about eighteen inches, some reach thirty, the plants pictured above were only eight inches high and quite young.

This species is unisexual, but most flowers are male, once the male dies the female begins to grow and produces its own flowers.  This leads to a hardier plant species because they don’t inbreed, since male and female blossom and different times, the flowers have to pollinate with another completely separate plant in the opposite stage of bloom.

Growing Jack-in-the-Pulpit

Considering its location: a dark, moist forest floor, this plant is rather easy to care for.  It mainly requires compost and moisture, specifically generous composting once a year and deals well with poorly draining soil.

Jack-in-the-pulpit is ideal for shade gardens and bogs, or other moist and dark locations.  It’s a set it and forget it kind of plant, and can be harvested and multiplied relatively simply.

Propagating Jack-in-the-Pulpit

 There are two methods for cultivating your own Jack-in-the-pulpit, from seeds or from offset the plant naturally grows.

In order to grow from seed, you first need to locate and harvest the right thing.  The seeds form in the later days of summer and early fall, if you have a Jack-in-the-pulpit that you visit often, keep an eye out for bright red berries.  Once these form they may be removed with gloves, some say the seeds can be planted directly in the ground in the fall (a half inch deep) or can be brought indoors for stratification.

Remember to use gloves, every part of Jack-in-the-pulpit is toxic in some way, the berries have juices that will cause irritation and blisters for several days.

Stratification means to place the seeds somewhere cold and very dark for two or three months, much like the method of storing flower bulbs off season.  It’s important to place your seeds into a bit of sphagnum moss or another easy going growing medium, then into the back of the fridge in a bag that will not let light through.

Another method of propagating Jack-in-the-pulpit is to dig up the plant once it begins growing off sets.  These baby plants can be gently separated from the mother, then potted and kept indoors if frosts are coming, or until it’s grown at least six inches.  Once ready plant it in the ground in a partly shaded, soggy location!

These have potential to become heirloom plants; while researching I read of a mother who passed her grandmother’s Jack-in-the-pulpits down to her son.

These baby plants grow off shoots which have tubers connected to the roots of the mother plant.  When you dig it up dust off as much dirt as possible, then using a sterile knife, cut the other plants away from the mother by the roots.

This separates the tubers (the bulb the plant will grow from every year) and allows you to spread out your Jacks.  Replant everything you dug up with a little more space between and, if you have time, more compost.  These plants love decaying matter and enjoy heavy composting once per year.

As long as you’ve set your Jack-in-the-pulpit up in partial shade and moist conditions, this plant will thrive without much interference and is rather cold hardy, using snow as an insulating blanket..

Jack-in-the-pulpit Folklore

Also known as Indian Turnip, Brown Dragon, Starchwort, Bog Onion and many others, all 150 plus varieties of Arisaema are known to be poisonous.  Reportedly the roots may be cooked and used to treat rheumatism and soreness of the eye, but this entire plant should be considered toxic to be safe.

Toxic components of Jack-in-the-pulpit

The particular toxin referred to is calcium oxalate crystals; this compound is found on  some plants in a needle like shape, being sharp at one end and dull at the other.  These crystals often develop due to excess calcium in the soil and are likely used as a defense for the plants, if an animal tried to ingest the plant, the calcium oxalate crystals would poison it in two stages.

The initial reaction is a mild numbness leading to painful sores anywhere the crystals may have touched.  Once digested stinging and pain in and around the mouth nose and throat may occur for up to two weeks.

Little tidbit: 80% of kidney stones contain calcium oxalate crystals.


Whenever you transplant or examine a new plant, its important to practice safety measures like wearing gloves.

Upon initial inspection this plant looks harmless, yet it is so interesting you feel a yearning to lift the hood over the Jack and peer inside.  But in nature it seems the more beautiful something is, the more likely it is to bite.

After learning more about Jack-in-the-Pulpit I’ve decided to transplant some from my back yard into terrariums we’ve been assembling for the wedding.  I’m hoping I can control the environment enough (part shade, moist atmosphere) so I can have a little piece our first home at the reception.  A detailed post on the terrarium project will be coming soon, it’s still in the experimental phase.








Have you spotted any interesting flora in CT or the North East? 

 Have any tips on terrariums and gardening for a  beginner?

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