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April 17th, 2012

From the Forest Floor: It’s Jack-in-the-Pulpit time again!

By Alex Norelli—

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Among the half-unfurled parasols of the May Apples…
from the leafy forest floor…
beneath a mix of shagbark hickory and liriodendron tulipfera…
with an occasional white pine grown scrawny in the shade…
just down an embankment from the fringe of a larch stand…
amongst the mossy decaying poles of a log cabin abandoned decades ago…
…the three-leafed propeller of the Jack-in-the-Pulpit (
Arisaema triphyllum) extrudes from beneath the leaf mat, sunning itself in the soft white spring light that has not yet been blocked by the eager canopies of the foliating trees.

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Jack-in-the-Pulpit beyond a Mayapple's parasol.

This plant is something I saw in a book before I noticed one growing in a woodlot next to where I’ve intermittently spent more than twenty years of my life. This land was an old iron mine that gave out around the time of the civil war and has since been the setting for a bustling habitat of deer, hawks, owls, salamanders and everything seemingly opposed to the near incessant encroachment of cookie-cutter homes devouring the surroundings. It’s a fitting example of “nature’s” ability to recolonize whatever moonscape we hand back to it, after taking from it what we value—which nature is really rather indifferent about, in the long run.

Once I identified the one, I ultimately became adept at recognizing them not only by their trademark lidded chalice flower (the pulpit), but by the lime green three-winged pinwheel that springs up alongside it, that against the brown forest floor catches the attention quite readily once the eye becomes attuned to their form and stature. Pretty soon I realized this could well be called a haven for Jacks, as they were too numerous to catalogue.

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My ensuing wanderings lead me to encounter it in its many stages of unfurling. While technically a flower, it is as otherworldly as a euphorbia bloom, its appearance snake-like enough that an arm-chair Darwinian might surmise its species’ survival is attributed to its approximation to a serpent poised to strike. And perhaps it is? As a matter of fact, Arisaema is commonly know as the Cobra Lily for its startling resemblance to the snake equivalent of JAWS. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone’s first encounter was accompanied by a jump and skip of the heartbeat. But on second look, one can see this is merely a flower, a unique one, that likes moister acidic soils and a mottled shade, and the one I found was beneath a pine in a lull between two hills.

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While I’ve not personally seen an array of these in any one garden, this plant it said to be easy to grow. What strikes me most is that it seems somewhat out of place; its form is tropical and its illusiveness makes it a pleasant find. Its picturesqueness is partially due to the fact it seems to be posing for the camera, maintaining an upright posture. As it matures and its green leaves darken, the semblance to a serpent becomes chilling. However, it is just a plant, and its only danger is its toxicity, which Native Americans once harnessed as a purgative.


ARtist, poet, Gardener www.AlexNorelliARt.com

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