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Are Jack-in-the-Pulpits Poisonous? | Jack-in-the-Pulpit Facts

Are Jack-in-the-pulpits poisonous? Learn how to identify this mysterious woodland plant and read about its unique history and growth habits.

By Chris Burnett

May 07 2021

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Jack-in-the-pulpits grow a single unique and intricate flower.

Photo Credit : Pixabay
In response to our post about the legality of picking lady’s slippers, several readers mentioned another woodland plant that’s largely shrouded in mystery: the Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum).

What Are Jack-in-the-Pulpits?

The Jack-in-the-pulpit is a somewhat common, perennial plant that’s found across eastern North America, from Texas to the Canadian Maritimes. The plant’s underground corm produces one to two stems that can be up to two feet tall and are each adorned with three broad leaflets. A third stem holds a single hooded flower, which emerges in late spring or early summer and looks quite intriguing, with its maroon stripes and green hood. The hood of the flower, known technically as a spathe (i.e., “pulpit”), contains a long, stem-like growth called the spadix (or “Jack”), which is where the flower’s reproductive parts are found. It’s from this flower structure that the plant gets it’s common name, Jack-in-the-pulpit.

History of Jack-in-the-Pulpits

As a species native to a large part of the United States, Jack-in-the-pulpits have a long relationship with humans. Some Native American peoples prepared the plant’s corm through drying or cooking, then ate it in a fashion similar to that of onions or potatoes. Jack-in-the-pulpits were also used medicinally, as part of a topical ointment meant to treat or ease skin conditions and soreness.

Growing Conditions of Jack-in-the-Pulpits

Jack-in-the-pulpits grow in largely deciduous forests with plenty of shade. They prefer rich, moist soil and can often be found near wetlands and vernal pools. In the late summer, after the plant’s flower has been pollinated, it produces a large clump of bright red berries. Each berry contains several seeds, which are spread by birds and other small animals after ingestion. Jack-in-the-pulpits can be grown from seeds or partial corms in a shady garden with moist soil. After planting, they can often take some time to mature and flower.
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The Jack-in-the-pulpit’s flowers consist of a single green hood striped with maroon.
Photo Credit : Pixabay

Identifying Jack-in-the-Pulpits

The plant’s three-leafed stems make it look a lot like the dreaded poison ivy, which sometimes results in the Jack-in-the-pulpit’s mistaken removal. A Jack-in-the-pulpit’s leaves are generally larger and broader than those of poison ivy, and the plant itself is typically taller than poison ivy, which tends to creep along the ground. Look for the signature hooded flower or red berry cluster to truly be sure that the plant you’re looking at is in fact a Jack-in-the-pulpit and not something more sinister!

Are Jack-in-the-Pulpits Poisonous?

The tales you may have heard about the toxicity of Jack-in-the-pulpits are true: they are indeed poisonous. The plant’s leaves, berries, and corms contain calcium oxalate, which is a chemical compound that takes the form of tiny crystalline structures. Getting this on your bare skin can cause irritation, and ingesting the plant raw can be dangerous, sometimes resulting in choking or blisters. It is therefore recommended to avoid touching any part of the plant unless you’re wearing gloves and other skin protection. Warning: Never consume any part of a Jack-in-the-pulpit raw and be sure to follow any cooking instructions with caution and diligence. Have you ever spotted Jack-in-the-pulpits in the woods? This post was first published in 2016 and has been updated.