Preachers In The Woods

Preachers In The Woods

A few weeks ago I finished Bill Bryson’s excellent book A Walk In the Woods. The author, an American who returned to this country several years ago after living twenty years in England, decided to walk the Appalachian Trail as a way of reconnecting with the land. Since Bryson is a professional travel writer, I assume that he was also motivated by a book contract. Be that as it may, the book is both hysterical and enlightening.

A Walk In the Woods made me think about the fact that relatively few Americans have the opportunity to walk in the woods any more. If you live in the suburbs, the woods are something that was bulldozed fifty years or fifty days ago to make way for your subdivision. If you live in the city, the closest you can get is a park (if you’re lucky). Even if you live in a rural area, you are probably so busy with the business of getting to and from work and carrying out the obligations of everyday life, that you don’t get many chances to take such walks.

Maybe this explains the current vogue for woodland plants. The new catalogs are absolutely full of terrestrial orchids, Dutchman’s breeches, trilliums and especially Jacks-in-the-Pulpit. It seems paradoxical that in this age of Global Warming, when people no longer plant trees for posterity, shade gardening is the hottest thing since e-commerce.

I try to take a walk in the woods every year in the early spring, as soon as the mud has subsided enough so that I don’t feel that it will suck me in. I am always tickled by my first sight of a Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum). The three large leaves that crown each plant are relatively easy to spot, but the hooded green or purplish-brown “Jack’s” are somewhat camouflaged. In the wooded areas that I frequent in the northeast, the plants seem relatively common. However, since wooded areas all over are endangered, I regard Arisaema as endangered as well.

In earlier decades, I assume that if someone wanted a Jack-in-the-Pulpit for their home garden, they would dig a few clumps of them from a nearby woods. Now, however, you can order one from a catalog. And if a plain old Arisaema triphyllum seems rather unsophisticated for your shade garden, there are lots of other choices. Asian species of the plant abound. In my tour through the catalogs I counted six different varieties.

All the species are similar in appearance. The hooded part is not really a petal, but a spathe or bract ( a type of leaf). The spathe covers or surrounds the spadix, which in the common North American Jack-in-the-Pulpit is white and shaped like an elongated cone. The spadices actually have tiny blossoms on them where pollinators carry on their essential business.

If you buy the very popular and fancifully named Snow Rice Cake Plant (Arisaema sikokianum) you will end up with a plant of Asian origin with a tall, erect, purple spathe and a white spadix with a rounded top. I presume the top of the spadix once reminded some poetic soul of a rice cake, hence the name. Two other species, Arisaema kiushianum and Arisaema thunbergii have spathes marked with purple or brownish-purple, and long, slender, whip-like spadices that reach up from the inside of the spathe and extend five or more inches in a somewhat surreal and vaguely obscene fashion.

Like the North American Jack-in-the Pulpit, the Japanese Arisaema sazensoo has a clerical connection. “Zazen” is a Japanese Buddhist meditation, and the plant allegedly got its name because its hooded appearance reminded someone of a meditating monk. For those six or seven gardeners who are also fans of WWF wrestling, there is Arisaema ringens, which has a fist-shaped spathe.

For my money, the best-looking Asian Jack-in-the-Pulpit is Arisaema candidissimum. The spathe has a pale green and white striped exterior and a pink striped interior with a greenish-brown spadix.

The good thing about all the Jacks is that they are easy to grow from tubers, and tend to multiply rapidly. They have the good looks of their botanical cousins, the calla lilies (Zantedeschia), but lack the unappealing stench of their ne’er-do-well cousins, skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus). In the fall most of them put on a lovely display of reddish orange berries.

With all the divisions that exist in the world it is appealing to think that if you take a walk in the woods in the eastern U.S., you can see a plant that looks almost exactly like something someone might see in the woods of southern Japan. Why on earth would you want to bulldoze it to make way for a shopping mall?

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