Monday, May 9, 2011

Brown Dragon Rising

"The mind is everything. What you think you become." - Buddha
Brown Dragon, Indian Turnip, Devil's-ear, Swamp turnip, Bog onion, Wake Robin, Lords-and-ladies. These are just some of the appellations that have adorned the plant which we now simply call, Jack-in-the-Pulpit, Arisaema triphyllum.

Jack-in-the-Pulpit. Arisaema triphyllum. Nehantic State Forest, Lyme, CT.
 I was hiking Nehantic State Forest in Lyme, Connecticut on a sunny May morning when I came across Jack-in-the-Pulpit. This plant is one of the little treasures one can find in the woodlands of New England. It is a perennial plant that grows from a corm. What is a corm? Well, if you are a birder, it's slang for a cormorant. However that's not what we're talking about here. This flower is not growing from the body of a bird buried in the forest! Though admittedly it would be fun to try and convince one of my kids that it is, but they're too old to buy that kind of stuff anymore, alas. A corm is simply a spherical tuber, or "bulb," similar to the flower bulbs many people plant around their homes.

The classic structure is formed by a "spathe" enclosing a "spadix." A spathe is simply a modified leaf, or bract. A spadix is a spike infloresence, and an infloresence is simply a group of flowers arranged on a stem. The spadix has both male and females flowers. Jack-in-the-Pulpits are variable, and the specimen I photographed below is handsomely patterned. 

Here a stick is used to genlty lift the spathe up to expose the spadex and the plant's colorful pattern.
This beautiful plant contains calcium oxalate and eating any raw part of it causes a buring sensation or possibly a reaction which could interfer with breathing and thus be life-threatening. Proper preparation allows the bulb to eaten (though why you would want to destroy such a lovely thing for a snack nowadays I don't know) and Native Americans did indeed utilize it in their diet. There is a legend among the Meskwaki Indians that they spiked meat with bits of the raw plant and left the meat to be consumed by their enemies, thus disabling or killing them. I can't imagine this could have been a signifcantly successful form of warfare however. Normally enemies would be suspicious of sustenance left about by the opposition, I should think. Reportedly the root was thought to be a contraceptive as well. A dose of the dried dried herb mixed with cold water was supposed to prevent conception for a week, while two doses mixed with hot water caused permanant sterility. I can imagine the first part having a kernel of truth based in one dose of an improperly prepared herb making a woman ill. Nothing like being sick to take the edge off amourous adventures! As for permanant sterility, maybe two doses of improperly prepared herb could kill you, which would permanently lower your chances of procreation.

A closer view of the "Brown Dragon"
There are many wonders to be found while walking through the woodlands of New England. I try to watch the ground, the trees, and the sky, all at the same time as I hike along. I realize it can make me look a bit paranoid but I don't want to miss anything. This plant is iconic to those of us who grew up in its range and chanced upon it as we walked through the woodlands of our childhood. The magical memory is still there for me whenever I encounter the Brown Dragon rising from the forest floor.