Jack was no saint.
While many think Jack-in-the-pulpit describes a flower with pious pedigrees, I now know that the devil is in the details.
A distinctive denizen of the wet woodlands, the common name of Arisaema triphyllum has an interesting and possibly sinister origin. Jack-in-the-pulpit describes the spadix and the spathe of the flower’s unique structure. The spathe is the hood or leaf-like sheath that covers, as an old-fashioned pulpit with a roof would, the floral spike (spadix) of this and a few other species of plants.
And while the good among us compare the parts to a man at a podium, the wicked wonder about this plant’s other aliases. Consider, for beginners, that the term “Jack” was used in olden days to describe either everyman or, sometimes, the devil.
The plant is also known also as dragon root, brown dragon, pepper turnip, devil’s ear and wild pepper — all names that describe its toxic qualities. Eaten raw, the corm (bulb-like stem) of this plant can cause intense burning and irritation of the mouth and digestive system. Needle-like crystals of calcium oxalate contained within the plant’s cells cause these troubles.
In fact, it has been suggested that some tribes of Native Americans mixed the raw plant with meat and left it for their enemies to eat and subsequently suffer a painful and eventual death.
Alternately, the same people know Jack-in-the-pulpit for its nutrition and as a remedy. Bog onion, Indian turnip and wild turnip describe a food source that when cooked provided nourishment and protection against bronchitis, rheumatism, and even a cure for a snakebite.
It later became a sort of bedeviled household helper, with the discovery that the roots could be used to make starch. This product produced more than just crisp shirts, with those closest to the process observing that it was ”most hurtful to the hands of the laundress that hath the handling of it.” Nor were the gentlemen content, since the “fashionable . . . complained of the neck rash cause by their starched ruffs.”
Speaking of gentlemen, Priest’s pintle is another name for the plant used by the English. William Cole, British apostle of the doctrine of plant “signatures,” (theory that plants treated parts of the body that they resembled) noted in 1657: “It hath not only the signature (the erect spadix) which will significantly declare itself but the virtues also according to the signature, for they are notable for stirring up the inclination to copulation.” You can thus guess what the word pintle was British slang for.
Jack-in-the-pulpit is found in wet areas and is not exceptionally common on the Island. It is a treat to find one and it is unmistakable due to its unique appearance. There is much to learn from studying it.
Determine the plant’s sex by peering under the spathe. A spadix with pollen is a male, but one with green berries is a female. Those genders can change annually, though. If the plant has a strong corm, it will be a female, since it takes much nutrition to produce those berries. However, if it has a small or underdeveloped corm, expect a male.
Another significant endowment is this flower’s ability to determine the fate of the sick. Lore suggests that the ill should drop a seed from this plant in a cup of stirred water. If the seed swirls around the cup four times, the patient will recover; less than four times means certain death.
One can easily imagine the anxiety with which a patient would pray for the benevolent aspects of this plant to triumph over the malevolent. As an analogy for life, it is a good lesson to receive from the pulpit.
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown. Her first book, Martha’s Vineyard: A Field Guide to Island Nature, is due out in June.