Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

May 14, 2007

Le Petit Precheur

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:39 am

  Allow me to introduce you to a unique Fleur Savauge that is now making an appearance in our local woodlands: the Jack-in-the-Pulpit. It is immediately identifiable by its tubular flower and usual complement of two three-parted leaves.  Although predominately green, the flower structure alone distinguishes it as one of the showiest in the woodland congregation.

  The common name refers to the resemblance of the flower to a preacher – or “Jack” – standing at his pulpit.  The pulpit, actually a modified leaf known as a spadix, bears an un-canny resemblance to the old style raised pulpits (take a look at a few examples here, here, and here). The “Jack”, on the other hand, looks nothing like any earthly preacher man – unless your pastor looks like a green tongue with no eyes.  This part is known in botanical circles as the spadix. The actual reproductive part of the Jack-in-the-Pulpit is in the form of tiny flowers at the base of this spadix (and hidden from view as reproductive parts should be).

  This cool green exterior, as it turns out, masks a very complex organism upon closer examination. 

  First of all, you’ll note that no two Jack-in-the-Pulpits are exactly alike. Some are large – two feet or more in height- while others are tiny (a whole plant only 8 inches tall). Some have two leaves, some have one. Some flowers are boldly streaked with maroon while others are just plain green. The color pattern differences are so prominent that some folks divide this plant into several overlapping subspecies. Even a cursory glance at some of the medicinal uses for this plant hints at a severe identity crisis in the making. Various root concoctions have been used to “counteract witchery to the face’ (whatever that means!), treat eye problems, remedy cold symptoms, induce vomiting & contraception (not in that order), and poison rival tribes. Given that last entry, it is even odder to note that the root of the plant was also used as a food item. Indian Turnip is another common name referring to this property. According to instructions, the roots lose their poisonous qualities once they are sliced, dried and boiled. My personal philosophy is to eat something that doesn’t have poison in it in the first place, but that’s just me.

  So, what deep dark secret does this plant hold?  Well, the simple answer is that it undergoes frequent sex change operations.  Yes, the Jack-in-the-Pulpit can become a Jill-in-the-Pulpit depending on how much the congregation puts in the collection basket each year. When first starting out, the plant produces a male flower.  After a few years it builds up a reserve of energy in the roots and is able to produce a female flower. Should times go bad, that same plant reverts to maleness. 

  According to a badly translated French language website, the decision for Le Petit Precheur (the Little Preacher) to change sex can be caused by “lack of water or certain nutritive elements and even the breaking of a sheet.” The “sheet” is apparently the translation of the “spathe”.  This decision of what kind of clothes to wear is determined by the conditions of the previous growing season. Once the plant sprouts in the spring, it is committed. 

  Now that you know this, you can determine whether a plant is a “Jack” or a “Jill” without waiting to see which bathroom it enters. The “Jacks” are very small and often only have one leaf to call their own. The “Jills” are the large robust plants with two full leaves. Peek inside the pulpits, and you’ll see the actual flower structure as a corn-on-the-cob type arrangement around the base of the preacher (who we’ll just call “Pat”). These, of course, will either be female or male structures depending on the year. You’ll notice a few Fungus Gnats hanging around down there in either case. These tiny black insects act as the pollinating agents for the “Pat-in-the-Pulpit.” 

  There is one more major difference to reveal when it comes to the treatment of the pollinating Gnats. The male pulpit has an opening at the bottom to allow these little guests to escape once they have partaken of the nectar and covered themselves with pollen. The female has no such opening.  Once the gnats enter the realm within her pulpit, they are usually trapped there for the rest of their natural born lives (which amounts to a few days). 

  Now, none of this is as sinister as it sounds.  Dying within the clutches of a plant in drag is normal for the Fungus Gnat.  The female expression of the Jack-in-the-Pulpit goes on to produce beautiful red berries thanks to this pollination.  These in turn will eventually sprout into a whole new generation of transvestites. C’est La Vie.

1 Comment »

  1. This has got to be the best-written account of Jack (and Jill) that I have read. I laughed out loud and had to share with co-workers.

    Comment by Ellen — March 10, 2010 @ 5:42 pm

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