Backlit by a soft sunrise, Reverend Jack holds services from his leafy pulpit atop a creek bluff in the Shaw Bottomland Forest Natural Area along the Meramec River in Franklin County. Native to Missouri, the jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) has been the subject of such descriptive folklore for as long as most can remember.
The character “Jack” is really a club-like structure, called a spadix, which is surrounded by tiny flowers that are protected by a modified leafcalled a spathe. This overhanging canopy represents Jack’s “pulpit,” at least to the more imaginative of nature lovers.
Jack-in-the-pulpit blooms from April to June, and it was in mid-April last spring when my friend Bill and I ran across this specimen. I was mostly interested in photographing migrating warblers that morning, but Bill’s ever-present botanical curiosity drew us up a small creek in search of wildflowers. It wasn’t long before he spied the jack-in-the-pulpit on top of an 8-foot high bluff above the creek, and suggested it would make a nice photograph. I was immediately taken by the unique plant, with its green spathe, streaked in brown and white, and prominent floral structure.
Always the pragmatist, I turned to Bill and said, “How am I going to photograph it? It’s too high up on the bluff to get an eye-level shot that will include the most important part of the plant.” Bill responded, “It’s in the perfect position because you will be looking up at the plant, so Jack won’t be obscured by the pulpit’s canopy.” Then I whined, “But I’ll be shooting right into the sun.” Without hesitation, Bill replied, “Yep, it will be beautifully backlit.”
Confident of my friend’s wisdom, I scrambled up the hill, grounded my tripod, and began photographing the legendary wildflower, which stood about a foot tall. As I tried different shutter speeds and aperture settings, balancing sharp focus with better depthof- field, I yelled to Bill, “I’m really loving these images!” As usual, Bill just nodded his head in a friendly, “I told you so.”
Jack-in-the-pulpit is found statewide in moist upland and bottomland forests and along the bases of moist, protected bluffs. One of the unique features of the species is it can have both male and female flowers or only one or the other. It can also change its gender characteristics from year to year. After flowering, jack-in-the-pulpit produces clustered berries of green that eventually turn brilliant scarlet.
Jack-in-the-pulpit contains calcium oxalate crystals that may cause a skin rash in some people so they should be approached with care. Also called “Indian turnip,” the corms of jack-in-the-pulpit were ground into flour by Native Americans. I suppose they had their own name for this captivating wildflower. Whatever it’s called, it’s one of many treasures of the forest floor that can be found every spring in Missouri.
—Story and photograph by Danny Brown
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