Nature Bulletin No. 711 March 30, 1963
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Seymour Simon, President
Roberts Mann, Conservation Editor
Two of our best-known spring wildflowers are the Skunk Cabbage and
the Jack-in-the-Pulpit. They are members of the Arum family and have
a curious structure characteristic of this interesting family. Instead of
petals, there is a single enclosing sheath with a canopy-like top, called a
"spathe". This encloses and protects a fleshy club-shaped spike called a
"spadix". The spadix appears fuzzy because it is crowded with tiny
flowers that have no petals and no sepals.
The Arum family includes more than 1000 species -- most of them
tropical; most of them having large coarsely-veined leaves and large
fleshy rootstocks; most of them found in swamps, ponds, and moist
habitats. Many have a bad smell, or a biting taste, or both. A cruel
prank sometimes played on a child in the woods is to offer him a bite of
Indian Turnip, another name for the Jack-in-the-Pulpit. The white
starchy underground root has a pleasant taste, at first, but in a few
moments his mouth and tongue begin to smart, and this burning
sensation becomes an agonizing pain which lasts for many hours.
The leaves, roots and the small bullet-like seeds of the skunk cabbage
produce a similar burning, though not so severe. The Indians, however,
used the roots of both these plants extensively for food or medicines,
and also the tuberous roots of some other wild arums: the Sweet Flag --
a shore plant which furnishes a noted aromatic drug, the Water Arum or
Wild Calla, and the Golden Club. Continued boiling, heating, or
thorough drying destroys the toxic effect. The Indians baked the roots
in pit ovens for three days and stored them for winter food.
The Arum family includes a familiar garden flower, the Calla Lily,
native to Africa; and also the Elephant Ear with its enormous shield-
shaped leaves, which comes from the East Indies. The large starchy
roots of the Taro, a close relative of the latter, are an important food in
Hawaii and the Pacific Islands. Another arum, a native of tropical
America but often grown in greenhouses, is the Ceriman, or Monstera:
a climbing evergreen vine which grows by aerial roots, has a peculiar
edible fruit, and has huge deeply-cut leaves perforated by numerous
holes. The largest flower in the world -- the Krubi of Sumatra -- is an
arum. Its huge vase-shaped spathe, 6 to 8 feet in diameter and equally
high, is yellowish on the outside and rich purple in the throat. The
yellow tubular spadix arises from it to a height of 15 feet or more, and
the flower has a powerful fetid odor.
The skunk cabbage blooms long before any other spring wildflower, in
swampy or spring-fed places. The hood-shaped spathe, maroon
streaked with greenish-yellow, is open on one side. Inside is the
lavender club-shaped spadix about the size of a marble. Its carrion
odor attracts bees, flies and gnats which pollinate it. The large leaves,
which appear later and grow to the size of rhubarb leaves, have this
same disagreeable smell when bruised.
The Jack-in-the-Pulpit grows from 12 to 30 inches high in our moist
woodlands and has one, two or more broad leaves each divided into 3
leaflets. The flower which rises from the fork of the leaf stems, has a
spathe which curls over to form a canopy for "Jack", the spadix, who
stands inside. The spathe is green, striped with purple or brown
depending upon the amount of shade. Many insects are trapped inside
it. The flower is followed by a large close cluster of green berries
which become brilliant red in autumn. The green dragon is similar
except that it has a single leaf with 5 to 17 slender leaflets arranged in a
semicircle, a rolled-up pointed spathe, and a long whip-like spadix.
Most arums are aromatic.
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Update: June 2012