Jack-In-The-Pulpit, A Complete Guide


One of the most interesting native flowers North America has to offer is commonly known as Jack-In-The-Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum). Typically found in woodland settings, the curious flower structure resembles something out of a science fiction novel rather than a common woodland plant.

In this article:

What is Jack In The Pulpit

Jack In The Pulpit is a perennial woodland wildflower native to Eastern North America. Growing 1-2′ tall in moist soil and partial to full shade, it’s tiny hidden flowers are pollinated specially by a type of gnat. In late Summer, successfully pollinated flowers will form small red fruits that are occasionally eaten by Thrush and Turkey. [1][2]

Interestingly, Jack In The Pulpit plants are either male, female, or bisexual. Only female or bisexual plants will produce the red berries in late Summer. One way to help differentiate plants in Spring is that larger plants tend to be female, while smaller plants are male and in-between sized plants are likely bisexual. [3]

But regarding the flower structure and morphology, you have what resembles a small man standing in the pulpit not unlike a large church. The two flower structures are known as the spadix (Jack) and the spathe (pulpit). And the red to purple stripes contrast with the lush green leaf color only add to the interest this shade-loving plant brings. It is not hard to see why this plant is used to get children interested in the outdoors!

But – note that the berries of this plant are toxic! So, teach your children (or any others) to be wary of the plant. The leaves, stalk, and root all contain calcium oxalate crystals which will cause burning/swelling in the skin or inside the mouth. It may be possible to choke if one ingests much, although it is reported that most people spit it out at the first bite. [2] Nonetheless, Native Americans did heat or cook, and then use the root corms as an ingredient for medicine, although I wouldn’t recommend it. [4]

Lookalikes

Amazingly, there are some similar-looking species that can be referred to as Jack In The Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum).

  • Arisaema dracontium can be sold or confused as they have similar flower structures. However, it will generally have 4 or more leaflets, where Jack In The Pulpit will only have three leaflets. The proper common names of Arisaema dracontium is ‘Green Dragon’ or ‘Dragon Turnip’. To make it more confusing, they both inhabit the same range as Jack in the pulpit.

Native Range of Jack In The Pulpit

The native range of Jack In The Pulpit is essentially North from East Texas to Manitoba, and then everywhere East to the Atlantic Ocean.

References [1]

Jack In The Pulpit Reference Table

Scientific NameArisaema triphyllum
Common Name(s)Jack-In-The-Pulpit, Indian Turnip, Bog Onion,  Devil’s dear, Wake robin, Starch wort
Native Range, USDA ZoneNative Range = Eastern North America. USDA Hardiness Zone 4-9.
Bloom TimeSpring
Bloom Duration, ColorTwo Months, white/green. Note – flower is only active for 2-3 weeks, but flower structure will remain.
Height1-2′
Spacing / Spread1-2′
Light RequirementsPartial sun to full shade
Soil TypesSandy loam to clay loam, but with plenty of organic matter present.
MoistureMoist to medium-moist
Fauna Associations / Larval HostsThrips and Fungus Gnats. Turkey & Thrush eat seeds.
Reference [1][2]

What are the Benefits of Jack In The Pulpit

Unique and interesting

The structure and form of the flower of Jack In The Pulpit is sure to draw interest to shady or woodland gardens. There isn’t any other plant that comes close to resembling it.

Grows in full shade

This is truly one of the most shade-loving plants. It likes dappled sun in Spring from the open forest canopy. But I have encountered Jack In The Pulpit deep in mature Oak and Maple forests. The shade helps keep the soil moist, which is a requirement for this plant.

Can grow in poor-draining soil

It’s roots don’t mind water! So, if you live near wetlands or bogs, you can easily grow Jack-In-The-Pulpit. Most plants around the world need well-draining soil, but not this one!

Identification and lifecycle of Jack In The Pulpit

For wild plants, in general they will have three stalks. Two stalks will have it’s trifoliate leaves, and the third stalk will contain the flower. In very mature plants, they can reach 2′ tall and have more than one set of leaves and flower. [2]

Stalk

Mature plants are 1-2′ tall (30-60 cm) with a single fleshy, yet stout stalk (peduncle) that is green, white, often covered with reddish-purple streaks.

Leaf

One to two trifoliate leaves with long stems (petioles). Individual leaflets are generally ovate to rhombic in shape and roughly 6-7″ (15-17 cm) long by 3″ wide (7.5 cm). They will be green in color with smooth margins and pinnately veined.

Flower

Jack-In-The-Pulpit has very unique flower morphology. It will consist of a Spadix (“Jack”) that is inside a Spathe (the pulpit). The spathe wraps around the spadix in a cylindrical or vase-like fashion, and then curls over the top, almost like a small roof or hood that comes to a point. Inside the Spathe, where they are hidden from view there will be small flowers. [2]

Note that Jack In The Pulpit will either be male, female, or bisexual. A survey in Montreal found that approximately 13% of the plants observed were bisexual. So, just because you have located a plant in the woods, it may not produce berries if it is male. Cross pollination must occur for fertilization of the flowers, and bisexual flowers cannot self-pollinate. [5]

The actual blooming time is about two weeks in mid to late Spring. However, the main structures of spathe and spadix will remain attached for much longer, lingering perhaps until late Spring.

Fruit

Successfully pollinated female flowers will form individual fruits containing a seed (nut). When ripe, they will be red in color and about 1/4″ diameter (6 mm).

Immature berries in mid-Summer.

Root

The root system consists of a corm (like a bulb), and will have secondary roots. Large plants may have the corm divided in late Fall or early Spring, as new corms will form attached to the primary. But, you’ve got to remember where the plant is located to avoid needlessly digging up your yard.[2]

Grow and Care for Jack In The Pulpit

Sunlight Requirements

For sunlight, Jack In the Pulpit prefers partial to full shade. This plant should not get very much direct sunlight (if any). No more than four hours per day.

In the wild you primarily encounter it in tall mature forests where even in early spring it will only get dappled sunlight.

Soil Requirements

For soil, Jack In The Pulpit will grow best in sandy loam to clay, and it will benefit from a good amount of organic matter and richness. Hence it likes to grow in mature forests, where there is lots of leaf litter to decompose and feed the soil.

Moisture Requirements

Jack In The Pulpit likes moist to medium-moist soil. This plant should not be allowed to dry out. The thick stalk and flower structure hold much moisture.

Maintenance

Jack In The Pulpit will not require any maintenance. It is trouble free once established.

Fertilizer

You do not need to fertilize Jack In The Pulpit. Just grow it in an area that has decent soil that doesn’t dry out. You can add a handful of compost when transplanting seedlings out, but it is not required if the soil is rich.

Propagating Jack In The Pulpit by division

Since the roots of Jack In The Pulpit are made of corms, which are very similar to bulbs, we can divide the plant in late Fall or very early Spring by division. This method is very similar to how one can divide Liatris, but in Jack In The Pulpit’s case we should only break-off corms, not saw through the plant. Also, this should only be done every 5 years, or on very mature plants.

  1. In late fall once the plant has gone dormant, dig up the entire root clump using a spade or shovel. The root should only be a few inches deep. Also, wear gloves as the sap can irritate skin.
  2. Any isolated bulbs, or offsets (bulbs that look like extra growths) can be broken off.
  3. Replant the parent clump where you dug it up immediately.
  4. Plant the offset corm to a new location that is shady, and in moist or medium-moist soil rich with organic matter.
  5. Mulch both plants, and water.

How to harvest seed from Jack In The Pulpit

In late Summer female flowers that were cross pollinated will yield bright red berries. These berries will be attached to the main stalk (spadix). The ‘pulpit’ and the top of the spadix (Jack) will have withered away. See below for a picture of what the plant and fruits will look like.

My first harvest of Jack-In-The-Pulpit. Note that there are no leaves. If it wasn’t for the red berries, you wouldn’t notice the plant. This photo was takin in mid-September in zone 6. Also note, many of the berries are missing, and were likely consumed by turkey that inhabit the area.

Note that there are no leaves, no foliage other than the stalk and berries!

You can harvest the fruits at this time, when the berries are soft and red. But it isn’t a matter of stuffing them into a bag and forgetting about them. You will need to prep them for storage, or just winter sow them right at that time. If the seeds dry out they will lose viability. [6]

Also note – the juices contained in the stalk, berries, and the seeds of Jack-In-The-Pulpit are poisonous to humans. Some people with sensitive skin may have a reaction if they come into contact with the juices. So where appropriate gloves to protect your skin.

How to prepare/store Jack-In-The-Pulpit-Seed

If you gather fresh seed from a plant, you can keep it in a zip-lock bag for a day or two. But you will want to process it soon. Jack In The Pulpit Seed should not dry out.

1 – To process it, simply squeeze out the hard white seed from the red flesh, and rinse. Make sure you clean it so there is no flesh left on the seed.

2 – Then, soak the seed in a solution of 1:10 bleach and water for sixty seconds. Then, rinse under tap water for 30 seconds. This sterilizes the outside of the seed and kills any bacteria.

3 – Finally, store the sterilized seed in a moist paper towel in a zip lock bag in the refrigerator until ready to either winter sow, or until Spring. If waiting until Spring, periodically check the towel to make sure it doesn’t dry out.

Jack in the Pulpit seeds

For those familiar with sowing seeds of native plants, you probably recognize that we are now beginning the stratification process. This serves two purposes: 1 – to keep the seed from drying out and 2, – to begin cold-moist stratification (as you probably guessed).

How to Grow Jack In The Pulpit from Seed

When it comes to the procedure to grow Jack In The Pulpit from seed, there are many disagreements among various authorities. Some sources state that there is a double dormancy period, and others state that you should never plant out to the final location until year two. Well, I broke all those rules and had 70% germination rate! Here is what I did:

Jack In The Pulpit seeds need to be cold-stratified for sixty days to break dormancy, or should be Winter Sown.[6] My personal preference is to Winter Sow the seed, as when you are cold-stratifying larger seeds in the fridge sometimes they dry out. But the steps below are for seed that is being Winter Sown, or cold stratified.

  1. Fill a suitable container with moist potting soil. The soil should be moist enough so that when you squeeze a handful only a few drops fall out.
  2. Press your Jack-In-The-Pulpit seeds into the surface of the soil. Do not bury them, as they need light to germinate.
  3. Keep the soil moist
  4. Germination should happen by mid-Spring

I chose a milk-jug for my winter sowing container, and as usual it did quite well. My first germination was in early May and seed continued to germinate for about one month, with the final germination rate being 5/7 seeds for 70%. At that point I carefully separated seedlings potted them up in 5″ pots, leaving them in a location that received only a few hours of morning sun.

Only 5 of the seeds were visible by Spring. It is possible that the two others were buried in the soil and did not receive light.

I kept my plants there and even left them outside, in their pots all Winter. The following Spring I transplanted them into their final location.

2nd year plant.

Establishment

Care must be given to transplanting young seedlings. Since it is a corm and not a stout root you should be very gentle when transplanting out to it’s final location. [6]

Jack In The Pulpit will focus on root production the first year or two. It will not flower until the plant is 3-5 years old.

Direct Sowing Jack In The Pulpit

If you don’t wish to grow plants in containers then you can simply direct sow the berries. High germination rates have been achieved by simply pushing berries into the surface soil in a suitable, moist/shady location. Do this right when you collect the ripe red berries, and you should have success the following Spring. [6]

Wildlife, Pests, and Diseases associated with Jack In The Pulpit

Pollinators

Surveys have found Fungus Gnats, Thrips, and Gall Gnats as the primary pollinators of Jack In The Pulpit. Interestingly, only 20-40% of the available flowers are visited when pollinator visits the plant. [5] It is believed that the odor of the flower is what attracts these tiny pollinators.[7]

Pests

Due to the poisonous and bitterness of the foliage, most insects leave Jack in the Pulpit alone. The foliage contains calcium oxalate, which can make a burning sensation in the mouth.

Deer and Rabbits

Deer and rabbits will not bother Jack-In-The-Pulpit. The foliage is bitter, toxic, and may cause a burning sensation in their mouths.

Birds

Despite the bitterness, some birds such as Turkey and Thrushes do eat the berries and may browse the foliage.[8][9] In fact, the first time I foraged Jack In The Pulpit Seeds, you could see that many berries were missing.

Disease

Jack In The Pulpit is not bothered by disease. It seems to be robust against all.

Is Jack In The Pulpit Toxic to Dogs and Cats?

The seeds and foliage of Jack In The Pulpit will likely cause pain and swelling in the mouth, lips, and tongue. It may also cause excessive drooling and vomiting. The seeds may also be toxic to dogs, but I could find no direct case studies. The ASPCA does recommend you contact your veterinarian if you suspect your dog has eaten Jack In The Pulpit. [10]

Where you can buy Jack In The Pulpit

Jack In The Pulpit is not typically sold in large nurseries. But it can be purchased at specialty nurseries that deal in Native Plants. You can find native plant nurseries near you on our interactive map.

Where to buy seeds

We have ordered a variety of native flower seeds from Everwilde Farms, which you can order right from Amazon through our link on our RECOMMENDED PRODUCTS PAGE. (We may earn a small commission when you purchase through our links, at no cost to you. This helps support our website.)

Uses of Jack-In-The-Pulpit

Garden Uses

Jack In The Pulpit is the PERFECT woodland garden plant! It loves shade, and moisture. So it would also be a great addition to a rain garden. Give this plant shade and moisture in rich soil, and it will take care of itself.

Companion Plants

For companion plants, Jack In The Pulpit pairs nicely with other Spring Wildflowers such as Rue Anemone, Dutchman’s Breeches, Virginia Bluebells, or Trillium. It can also go well with most ferns. Keep it with other woodland plants, and it will look great.

Native American uses of Jack In The Pulpit

There are approximately 58 uses of Jack In The Pulpit documented by 13 tribes. The Cherokee and Iroquois uses are the best documented, and they are primarily medicinal. [11]

The Cherokee used a poultice of root to treat headaches and other skin ailments such as boils. They could use the plant to treat colds, dry coughs or clear mucus from the nose/throat.

The Iroquois used it to treat a variety of ailments and symptoms such as a pain reliever, cure for diarrhea in children, dermatological aid, and to treat post nasal drip. An interesting use was that steam would be generated from Jack In The Pulpit to ‘treat sore eyes’. An infusion of roots was also used as a wash “for listless babies”, which would speak to the burning sensation or irritation the sap of plant can cause.

Final Thoughts

Truly one of the most interesting botanical curiosities North America has to offer, Jack In The Pulpit is a great addition to a shade, rain, or woodland garden in moist or medium-moist soil. It has survived and thrives despite it’s complicated flower morphology in that it only attracts certain pollinators (that most aren’t even aware of). And it isn’t too difficult to grow from seed, so you can propagate your own for little to no money.

Find more native plants here

References:

[1] – Arisaema triphyllum (L.) Schott. USDA NRCS. Accessed 12DEC2022.

[2] – Stephens, Homer A. Poisonous plants of the central United States. University Press of Kansas, 1980. pp167.

[3] – Bierzychudek, Paulette. “The demography of jack‐in‐the‐pulpit, a forest perennial that changes sex.” Ecological monographs 52.4 (1982): 335-351.

[4] – James, Wilma Roberts, and Arla Lippsmeyer. “Know your poisonous plants.” (1973). pp.84

[5] – Barriault, I., et al. “Pollination ecology and reproductive success in Jack‐in‐the‐pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) in Québec (Canada).” Plant Biology 12.1 (2010): 161-171.

[6] – Schultz, Jan, and Jan Schultz. “Propagation Protocol for Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum).” Native Plants Journal 6.2 (2005): 108-110.

[7] – Barriault, Isabelle, Marc Gibernau, and Denis Barabe. “Flowering period, thermogenesis, and pattern of visiting insects in Arisaema triphyllum (Araceae) in Quebec.” Botany 87.3 (2009): 324-329.

[8] – Price, Kim D. “Analyses of Illinois Wild Turkey Habitat and April Foods.” (1980).

[9] – Philhower-Gillen, Jennifer R. The Role of Animals in Maintaining Forest Herb Diversity in Southeast Ohio. Diss. Ohio University, 2015.

[10] – ASPCA – Poisonous Plants. Accessed 13DEC2022

[11] – Arisaema tryphillum. North American Ethnobotany Database. Accessed 13DEC2022.

Joe Foster

Hi - I grew up outdoors in nature - hiking, fishing, hunting. In high school I got my first job at a garden center where I learned to garden and landscape. I've been growing plants from seed and designing native plant gardens for over six years. I hope to share some of my knowledge with you! Additionally I am a wood worker / DIY enthusiast. I enjoy designing/building projects (with hand tools when I can!). I hope to give you some tips and useful information!

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