Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Red Jacks

Weeks before the hillsides are awash in the reds and oranges of autumn leaves, you can find splashes of brilliant colors on a walk in the woods. The dense cluster of bright red berries of jack-in-the-pulpit look like red lanterns lighting up the forest floor.

Jack-in-the-pulpit, Arisaema triphyllum, fruiting in September

Earlier in the year -- April through June -- the jack-in-the pulpit flowers. A striped, greenish-purple hooded canopy or pulpit curves over the flower known as a spadix or just "Jack."

Jack-in-the-pulpit flowering in late April

In early summer when black bears are really hungry they search out foods near wetlands, in moist woods, and along stream edges -- places that green up early. Here they find jack-in-the pulpits, among other early foods. The bears dig up the underground tuber or corm. Jack-in-the-pulpit is also known as Indian tuber. Native Americans in the east boiled the tuber before eating, as all parts of the plant contain calcium oxylate crystals which cause severe burning if eaten raw. I am not sure how bears handle this, but they seem to relish the jacks raw.

The jack-in-the-pulpit typically has two, long-stemmed leaves, each with three leaflets, reaching 1-2 feet tall. The single fruiting body -- Jack and his pulpit -- emerges beneath the leaves. Fall colors are always beautiful and you can see them in places you might not expect,. Look to the forest floor for the red Jacks. You will see the fruit before you notice the vegetative parts, which are beginning to fade.

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