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Arum Family

( Originally Published 1922 )



Common Name: Jack-in-the-Pulpit; Indian Turnip

Arisaema triphyllum

Flowers—Minute, greenish yellow, clustered on the lower part of a smooth, club-shaped, slender spadix within a green and maroon or whitish-striped spathe that curves in a broad-pointed flap above it. Leaves: 3-foliate, usually overtopping the spathe, their slender petioles 9 to 30 in. high, or as tall as the scape that rises from an acrid corm. Fruit: Smooth, shining red berries clustered on the thickened club.

Preferred Habitat—Moist woodland and thickets. Flowering Season—April—June.

Distribution—Nova Scotia westward to Minnesota, and southward to the Gulf states.

A jolly-looking preacher is Jack, standing erect in his parti-colored pulpit with a sounding-board over his head; but he is a gay deceiver, a wolf in sheep's clothing, literally a "brother to dragons," an arrant upstart, an ingrate, a murderer of innocent benefactors! "Female botanizing classes pounce upon it as they would upon a pious young clergyman," complains Mr. Ellwanger. A poor relation of the stately calla lily one knows Jack to be at a glance, her lovely white robe corresponding to his striped pulpit, her bright yellow spadix to his sleek reverence. In the damp woodlands where his pulpit is erected beneath leafy cathedral arches, minute flies or gnats, recently emerged from maggots in mushrooms, toadstools, or decaying logs, form the main part of his congregation.

Now, to drop the clerical simile, let us peep within the sheathing spathe, or, better still, strip it off altogether. Doctor Torrey states that the dark-striped spathes are the fertile plants, those with green and whitish lines, sterile. Within are smooth, glossy columns, and near the base of each we shall find the true flowers, minute affairs, some staminate; others, on distinct plants, pistillate, the berry bearers; or rarely both male and female florets seated on the same club, as if Jack's elaborate plan to prevent self-fertilization were not yet complete. Plants may be detected in process of evolution toward their ideals just as nations and men arc. Doubtless when Jack's mechanism is perfected, his guilt will disappear. A little way above the florets the club enlarges abruptly, forming a projecting ledge that effectually closes the avenue of escape for many a guileless victim. A fungous gnat, enticed perhaps by the striped house of refuge from cold spring winds, and with a prospect of food below, enters and slides down the inside walls or the slippery, colored column: in either case descent is very easy; it is the return that is made so difficult, if not impossible, for the tiny visitors. Squeezing past the projecting ledge, the gnat finds himself in a roomy apartment whose floor--the bottom of the pulpit—is dusted over with fine pollen; that is, if he is among staminate flowers already mature. To get some of that pollen, with which the gnat presently covers himself, transferred to the minute pistillate florets waiting for it in a distant chamber is, of course, Jack's whole aim in enticing visitors within his polished walls; but what means are provided for their escape? Their efforts to crawl upward over the slippery surface only land them weak and discouraged where they started. The projecting ledge overhead prevents them from using their wings; the passage between the ledge and the spathe is far too narrow to permit flight. Now, if a gnat be persevering, he will presently discover a gap in the flap where the spathe folds together in front, and through this tiny opening he makes his escape, only to enter another pulpit, like the trusted, but too trusting, messenger he is, and leave some of the vitalizing pollen on the fertile florets awaiting his coming.

But suppose the fly, small as he is, is too large to work his way out through the flap, or too bewildered or stupid to. find the opening, or too exhausted after his futile efforts to get out through the overhead route to persevere, or too weak with hunger in case of long detention in a pistillate trap where no pollen is, what then? Open a dozen of Jack's pulpits, and in several, at least, dead victims will be found—pathetic little corpses sacrificed to the imperfection of his executive system. Had the flies entered mature spathes, whose walls had spread outward and away from the polished column, flight through the over-head route might have been possible. However glad we may be to make every due allowance for this sacrifice of the higher life to the lower, as only a temporary imperfection of mechanism incidental to the plant's higher development, Jack's present cruelty shocks us no less. Or, it may be, he will become insectivorous like the pitcher plant in time. He comes from a rascally family, anyhow. His cousin, the cuckoo-pint, as is well known, destroys the winged messenger bearing its offspring to plant fresh colonies in a distant bog, because the decayed body of the bird acts as the best possible fertilizer into" which the seedling may strike its roots.

In June and July the thick-set club, studded over with bright berries, becomes conspicuous, to attract hungry woodland rovers in the hope that the seeds will be dropped far from the parent plant. The Indians used to boil the berries for food. The farinaceous root (corm) they likewise boiled or dried to extract the stinging, blistering juice, leaving an edible little "turnip," however insipid and starchy.

Skunk or Swamp Cabbage Symplocarpus foetidus

Flowers—Minute, perfect, foetid; many scattered over a thick, rounded, fleshy spadix, and hidden within a swollen, shell-shaped, purplish-brown to greenish-yellow, usually mottled, spathe, close to the ground, that appears before the leaves. Spadix much enlarged and spongy in fruit, the bulb-like berries imbedded in its surface. Leaves: In large crowns like cabbages, broadly ovate, often 1 ft. across, strongly nerved, their petioles with deep grooves, malodorous.

Preferred Habitat—Swamps, wet ground.

Flowering Season—February—April.

Distribution—Nova Scotia to Florida, and westward to Minnesota and Iowa.

This despised relative of the stately calla lily proclaims spring in the very teeth of winter, being the first bold adventurer above ground. When the lovely hepatica, the first flower worthy the name to appear, is still wrapped in her fuzzy furs, the skunk cabbage's dark, incurved horn shelters within its hollow, tiny, malodorous florets. Why is the entire plant so foetid that one flees the neighborhood, pervaded as it is with an odor that combines a suspicion of skunk, putrid meat, and garlic? After investigating the Carrion-flower and the Purple Trillium, among others, we learned that certain flies delight in foul odors loathsome to higher organisms; that plants dependent on these pollen carriers woo them from long distances with a stench, and in addition sometimes try to charm them with color resembling the sort of meat it is their special mission, with the help of beetles and other scavengers of Nature, to remove from the face of the earth. In such marshy ground as the Skunk Cabbage lives in, many small flies and gnats live in embryo under the fallen leaves during the winter. But even before they are warmed into active life, the hive-bees, natives of Europe, and with habits not perfectly adapted as yet to our flora, are out after pollen.

After the flowering time come the vivid green crowns of leaves that at least please the eye. Lizards make their home beneath them, and many a yellowthroat, taking ad-vantage of the plant's foul odor, gladly puts up with it herself and builds her nest in the hollow of the cabbage as a protection for her eggs and young from four-looted enemies. Cattle let the plant alone because of the stinging acrid juices secreted by it, although such tender, fresh, bright foliage must be especially tempting, like the hellebore's, after a dry winter diet. Some-times tiny insects are found drowned in the wells of rain water that accumulate at the base of the grooved leafstalks.



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