The theme for our hike at my rural property seemed to be “green.” Buffy and I walked into the ravine. The trees were mostly leafed out. The west slope of the ravine, where it was burned was greening with new growth. The shrub layer of spicebush was all leafed out. Very few of the early spring wildflowers still bloomed. The sky was clear, producing a ravine canopy of mixed sunlit yellow-greens, deeper shaded greens and all patch-worked with the sky’s blue. The wind gave it all movement.
One Virginia bluebell had 3 flowers and 2 pink buds. Christmas fern fronds stood to mid-thigh. The creek was actually dry. We’re almost 4 inches behind in rainfall for the year. Water runs off at this higher elevation, and the creek doesn’t have water as long as lower-elevation ones do. The birds were quiet except for a Northern parula warbler’s buzzy call, that rose in pitch and came to an abrupt stop. The only other noise (besides our walking) was the wind.
Jack-in-the-pulpits were more numerous than usual. A patch of them covered approximately 10×6 feet. I counted 68 plants, and most were “babies” about 3″ tall. The blooming ones were 12 or more inches tall. Only 8 were blooming. I pulled back the hood, called the spathe, on one plant. Jack, the preacher, stood in the middle with tiny dark flowers at the base. The column is called the spadix.
Jack-in-the pulpit (Arisaema Triphyllum) averages 18 inches tall; some can reach 2 1/2 feet. The plants have either 1 or 2 leaves, and each is divided into 3 leaflets. They grow from a corm. The plants bloom April into May and die back in the fall, leaving a stalk with a cluster of bright red berries. The striped spathe can also be maroon and green.
I researched online and found some really amazing facts about Jack-in-the-pulpit: The spadix produces an odor of mushrooms to attract tiny insects, known as “fungus gnats.” They fly in to lay their eggs, then become confused because the hood blocks the light. The lower part of the spathe is lighter. The gnats go lower and either pick up or drop off pollen, according to the sex of the flower. The way the spathe wraps around the male flowers leaves a small opening at the base where the gnats can get out. Ones that fly into female flowers aren’t able to get out.
Young plants are only able to produce enough energy to form leaves the next year. After several more years of growing the plants have male flowers. As they grow bigger over several more years, they then produce a spadix with male and female flowers. It then takes many more years of accumulating energy for the plant to produce a spadix with only female flowers. Apparently undisturbed populations can have plants to 100 years old.
In the fall, as the flower and leaf buds form, older plants can decide whether to be male or female. If there had been a dry year, the plant might decide to be male. That way it would only produce pollen, where a female plant would need enough energy to produce pollen and seeds.
I had no idea this was possible for some plants! (And I’ve giggled over the conversation a plant might have with itself on what sex to be next year.)