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

            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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