Jack-in-the-pulpit and green-dragon, in the Arum (Araceae) Family, are herbaceous perennial monocots that occur throughout the state in similar habitats. Both are smooth overall and hairless. Plants range from 2 inches to 2 feet in height. Habitats include mesic (well-balanced moisture) deciduous woodlands and thickets and hillside seeps with light shade and humus-rich soil. Both are dioecious; that is, the flowers are unisexual, staminate or pistillate, such that two plants are required for cross-pollination and fertilization. In general a plant will be staminate for several years, contributing only pollen to the reproductive process, until enough energy has accrued in the corm to produce seeds and fruits. The sex change may be brought about by age or health of the plant. Corms, about an inch below the surface, may grow to 1½ inches across with a few fibrous roots. Both species produce an elongated cluster (corn-cob-like) of bright shiny red berries that appear identical for both plants (photo 1). One- or two-year-old plants of both species have a single leaf with three leaflets and appear identical. Both species produce clonal plantlets, and thick-standing colonies of varying sized plants can develop. Leaves and flowers unfurl initially from a pointed sheaf arising from each corm. Inflorescences, on top of stout fleshy upright stalks, emerge at the same time as leaves.
Photo 1: Mature cluster of green-dragon berries. Cluster on Jack-in-the pulpit would appear identical.
Berries (¼ inch across) enclosing one to several seeds, at first green, become bright red as female plants begin to wither in late summer and fall. Berries remain attached to the dry spadix, resulting in an ovoid mass of showy berries up to 2 inches long which stay on the stem even when stem has dried. A cluster can consist of up to 150 berries, each with 1 to 3 rounded flat-sided light tan seeds.
Either plant is an excellent woodland garden plant, being easy to cultivate and requiring little care. Along with the interesting characteristics of the vegetation, the cluster of berries in late summer and fall is attractive. Birds and mammals eat the berries, but berries of both plants should be considered poisonous to people.
Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum [formerly Arisaema atrorubens]) is also known as Indian-turnip because cooked corms were eaten by Native Americans. A mature corm produces one or two large glossy compound leaves on stout fleshy stalks. Typically, three smooth-edged leaflets emanate from a common point at the top of each leaf stem (photo 2), though leaves can occasionally have five leaflets (photo 3). Leaflets, up to a foot long and up to 8 inches wide, are broadly oval to elliptic with tapering points. Leaflets of both plants have pinnate venation which stops near leaf edges.
Photo 2: Characteristic shape of Jack-in-the-pulpit’s compound leaves. Typical plants have only three leaflets. Note venation.
Photo 3: Occasional Jack-in-the-pulpit plants have leaves with five leaflets each.
The inflorescence, initially wrapped by stipules at the base of leaf or leaves, has a spathe (widened hood or pulpit) rising above the central protruding spadix (Jack) (photo 4). Exterior of the spathe is usually green or purple and the inside usually striped greenish white (along veins that parallel flower stalk) and purple (between veins). The lower portion of the spathe is a tube-like sheath wherein numerous tiny male and/or female flowers, tightly bound to the spadix, are hidden. Structures on the spadix standing above male and female flowers are infertile. Pollinating flies are trapped in the lower portion of the spathe (photo 5).
Photo 4: Inflorescence of Jack-in-the-Pulpit showing over-arching spathe and post-like spadix.
Photo 5: Developing berries of Jack-in-the-pulpit. The spathe has begun to dry. Insect carcasses litter the base of the spathe.
Green-dragon or dragon-root (Arisaema dracontium) is very similar to Jack-in-the pulpit, with main differences being in leaves and inflorescence. Green-dragon usually has only one large compound leaf with 7 to 15 lance-shaped leaflets (photo 6). Green-dragon has a greenish spathe that is less prominent and the spadix is considerably longer, thinner, and tapered, extending upward (the dragon’s tongue) around the top of the spathe (photo 7). Mature green-dragon leaves have the central and largest leaflet unfurling first. At the base of the central leaflet, other leaflets branch off, forming a semi-circle parallel to the ground [the dragon’s wings?] (photo 8).
Photo 6: Leaves of green-dragon. The largest central leaflet ties directly to the leaf stalk while other leaflets grow from a “branch” on either side. Note venation.
Photo 7: Green-dragon inflorescence. Spadix is several times longer than spathe. (Plant seen behind green-dragon is May-apple.)
Photo 8: A new leaf and flower of green-dragon. Leaf may suggest dragon’s wings. (Plant seen behind green-dragon is celandine poppy.)
Article and photographs by ANPS member Sid Vogelpohl