The elusive Arisaema triphyllum

Photography by Mark Knox

Arisaema triphyllum, also known as a Jack-in-the-Pulpit, is a flowering plant found in the wooded areas of eastern North America, including the forest behind my back yard. They show up quickly in early May and stick around into June. This year, with a cold, rainy spell this past week, I saw a second wave of blooms.

Every year it’s a challenge for me, as my dogs playfully tread the mountain paths, to spot these plants when they first arrive. In the midst of May Apples, thorny sprouts, ferns, and other greenery, the Jacks hide tucked away in shady spots. Each evening as I return home, I announce how many new plants I spotted that day.

This search goes all the way back to my high school days, when in my sophomore or junior year, my science teacher whose name escapes me, assigned us to search the woods and dales of the north-central Ohio landscape for wild spring flowers. We were to collect, press, display, and describe as many as we could find. We would be graded on a sliding scale based on how many specimens we completed.

As one who woefully underachieved in high school and seldom did homework, ironically I really enjoyed this assignment. I even bought a little pocket guide to wildflowers to help me with the identification.

Unfortunately, my excitement for the assignment failed to overcome my inherent laziness and procrastination (something I struggle with to this day), so I ended up not turning in many examples. I probably got a “D” as I recall.

But near the due date, I summoned up some initiative and headed into the wood across the street from my house on Ohio Route 58, hoping to find enough to get me over the threshold of failure. For some reason, and I had no real scientific knowledge of this, I thought maybe I might find a Jack-in-the-Pulpit.

I spent the better part of an hour wandering through this small woodland. I don’t remember if I found any other specimens, but I continued to look for Jack. I didn’t know that most Jacks plants have an additional stem with 3 leaves; I was just looking for the familiar striped spathe – the pulpit – that housed the spadix – “Jack” – that I had seen somewhere before in some distant memory.

Suddenly, there he was! It was almost startling, kind of like the feeling you get when someone jumps out at you from behind a door. And then, where before I couldn’t find a one, now I was seeing dozens everywhere. Some were light green, and others had more of a purple-ish striped hue. I carefully broke one off at the base, took it home, and pressed it into my collection. I never went back to that woods.

Here in the temperate climes of western North Carolina, I began to walk the woods with Shadow the Dog, later adding the Amazing Roscoe Dog, I began to think about hunting for Jack anew.

Again, that nervous pursuit. Where might I find him? Looking, looking, looking. Peering, staring, studying. This time, he didn’t startle me; he was just there. I looked around; surely there are more of his mates. But no, he was a solo preacher. Maybe that first year I found three.

The next year there were more, and in additional places. Each year the numbers increase. Either they are spreading, or my powers of observation and discovery are hightened.

I’ve even found some variations beyond the coloring, green or purple. There are the early ones that are shorter and smaller with thinner stems. 3 leaves. There are some stalks with only leaves that grow. I look closely; they’re the same leaves, but no pulpit. I’ve found some with five leaves. Is this a new species? After all, they’re called tri-phyllum. Probably not, just a variation. Later in the season, I start to see a different kind. The base is a brown wrap giving way to thick stems, 3 in fact! One with the Jack and two stems of 3 leaves. Big leaves!

Today’s the first day of summer, and the Jack blooms are starting to wilt. With the cooler weather, we’ve had an extended season this year. so it’s been a gratifying adventure to take my nightly walk.

I like to think that this is something like what Adam must have felt in the Garden as he worked it and gave names to his discoveries. I believe my Father is pleased when I delight in what he has placed in this world. Through no fault of its own, the whole creation was subjected to corruption and eagerly awaits the revealing of the sons of God (Romans 8:19-23). But, though groaning, creation still tells a story.

Each spring, these Jacks step into their pulpits and preach the glory of God.