Gateway to the Classics: Wild-Flower Study by Anna Botsford Comstock
Wild-Flower Study by  Anna Botsford Comstock


Teacher's Story

"With hooded heads and shields of green,

Monks of the wooded glen,

I know you well; you are, I ween,

Robin Hood's merry men."

—"Child's Own Book of Flowers."

dropcap image HIS little preacher is a prime favorite with all children, its very shape, like that of the pitcher plant, suggesting mystery; and what child could fail to lift the striped hood to discover what might be hidden beneath! And the interest is enhanced when it is discovered that the hood is but a protection for the true flowers, standing upon a club-shaped stem, which has been made through imagination into "Jack," the little preacher.

Jack-in-the-pulpit prefers wet locations but is sometimes found on dry, wooded hillsides; the greater abundance of blossoms occurs in late May. This plant has another name, which it earned by being interesting below ground as well as above. It has a solid, flattened, food-storehouse called a corm with a fringe of coarse rootlets encircling its upper portion. This corm was used as a food by the Indians, which fact gave the plant the name of Indian turnip. I think all children test the corm as a food for curiosity, and retire from the field with a new respect for the stoicism of the Indian when enduring torture; but this is an undeserved tribute. When raw, these corms are peppery because they are filled with minute, needle-like spicules which, however, soften with boiling, and the Indians boiled them before eating them.

Jack-in-the-pulpit is a near cousin to the calla lily; the white part of the calla and the striped hood over "Jack" are both spathes, and a spathe is a leaf modified for the protection of a flower or flowers. "Jack" has but one leg and his flowers are set around it, all safely enfolded in the lower part of the spathe. The pistillate flowers which make the berries are round and greenish, and are packed like berries on the stalk; they have purple stigmas with whitish centers. The pollen-bearing flowers are mere little projections, almost white in color, each usually bearing four purplish, cup-like anthers filled with white pollen. Occasionally both kinds of flowers may be found on one spadix, (as "Jack" is called in the botanies), the pollen-bearing flowers being set above the others; but usually they are on separate plants. Professor Atkinson has demonstrated that when a plant becomes very strong and thrifty, its spadix will be set with the pistillate flowers and its berries will be many; but if the same plant becomes weak, it produces the pollen-bearing flowers the next year.

When "Jack" first appears in the spring it looks like a mottled, pointed peg, for it is well sheathed. Within this sheath the leaves are rolled lengthwise to a point, and at the very center of the rolled leaves is a spathe, also rolled lengthwise, and holding at its heart the developing flower-buds. It is a most interesting process to watch the unfolding of one of these plants. On the older plants there are two, or sometimes three leaves, each with three large leaflets; on the younger plants there may be but one of these compound leaves, but the leaflets are so large that they seem like three entire leaves.


1. Jack-in-the-pulpit unfolding;
2. Spadix with pistillate flowers;
P. Pistillate flower enlarged;
3. Spadix with staminate flowers;
an, a staminate flower enlarged,
showing the four anthers.

The spathes, or pulpits, vary in color, some being maroon and white or greenish, and some greenish and white. They are very pretty objects for water-color drawings.

Small flies and some beetles seem to be the pollen carriers for this plant. Various ingenious theories have been suggested to prove that our Jack-in-the-pulpit acts as a trap to imprison visiting insects, as does the English species; but I have studied the flowers in every stage, and have seen the insects crawl out of the hoods as easily as they crawled in, and by the same open, though somewhat narrow, passage between the spadix and the spathe.

After a time the spathe falls away showing the globular, green, shining berries. In August even the leaves may wither away, at which time the berries are brilliant scarlet. Jack-in-the-pulpit is a perennial. It does not blossom the first year after it is a seedling. I have known at least one case where blossoms were not produced until the third year. Below ground, the main corm gives off smaller corms and thus the plant spreads by this means as well as by seeds.


The berries of Jack-in-the-pulpit.

Lesson CXXII


Leading thought—The real flowers of Jack-in-the-pulpit are hidden by the striped spathe which is usually spoken of as the flower. This plant has a peppery root which the Indians used for food.

Method—The questions should be answered from observation in the woods; a single plant may be dug up and brought to school for study, and later planted in some shady spot in the school garden.


1. Where do you find Jack-in-the-pulpit? Is the soil dry or damp? Do you ever find it in the fields?

2. How early in the season does this plant blossom? How late?

3. How does the Jack-in-the-pulpit look when it first pushes out from the ground? How are its leaves rolled in its spring overcoat?

4. How does the pulpit, or spathe, look when the plant first unfolds? Is its tip bent over or is it straight?

5. Describe or sketch the leaves of Jack-in-the-pulpit. How do they rise above and protect the flower? How many leaflets has each leaf? Sketch the leaflets to show the venation. How do these stand above the flower? Can you find any of the plants with only one leaf?

6. Why is the spathe called a pulpit? What are the colors of the spathe? Are all the spathes of the same colors?

7. Open up the spathe and see the rows of blossoms around the base of the spadix, or if you call the spadix, "Jack," then the flowers clothe his one leg. Are all the blossoms alike? Describe, if you can, those flowers which will produce the seed and those which produce the pollen. Do you find the two on the same spadix or on different plants?

8. What insects do you find carrying the pollen for "Jack?" Do you know how its seeds look in June? How do they look in August? Do the leaves last as long as the seeds?

9. What sort of a root has "Jack?" How does it taste? Do you think the Indians boiled it before they ate it? What other name has "Jack?" How does the plant multiply below the ground?

10. Compare the Jack-in-the-pulpit with the calla lily.

11. Write an English theme on "The Sermon that Jack Preached from His Pulpit."


Border design by Evelyn Mitchell.

From the Child's Own Book of Wild Flowers.

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