Thom Smith | Naturewatch: A 'preacher' with food and medicinal uses


Q: A couple of years ago, I transplanted a Jack-in-the-Pulpit, which was growing under my porch. It survived and today there are about eight plants. I do not know how to care for them as they are growing among the weeds. I understand they are an endangered species. Could you advise me.

— Rosalie, Williamstown, Mass.

A: First, it is not endangered, having an extensive native range from Canada west to North Dakota, and south to Florida and Texas.

It is found in moist woods, along edges of bogs, ponds, river or stream floodplains, edges of wetlands, and more — apparently including back yards. I, too, found one in our yard about 15 years ago while living in Dalton, Mass., harvested its seeds to scatter in shadier areas, where they proliferated with no care at all.

Jack is that easy to cultivate, and tolerates a wide range of conditions, but thrives best in moist, shady locations in slightly acidic, well-drained soil. With composting around the base of the plant(s) it makes a wonderful addition to a woodland garden. Rather than digging one up in the wild, check native garden suppliers or gather a few ripe seeds in the late summer.

Folklore has Jack preaching from the pulpit. The "preacher" or spadix of the flower stands erectly in the "pulpit" or spathe, and its external appearance or discovered uses has generated a number of names including Parson-in-the-Pulpit, Lord-and-Lady, Cuckoopint, Aronskelk , Indian Turnip, Iroquois breadroot, Starchwort, Memory root, Bog onion, American arum, Devil's ear, Pepper turnip, Dragonroot, Wake robin, Cooter-Wampee, Plant-of-Peace, Cobra lily, Petit precher (Quebec).

For me, pepper turnip is a more acceptable name, or pepper turnip on steroids is even better. When I was a teen working weekends at Pleasant Valley Wildlife Sanctuary in Lenox, Mass., I was given its (raw) bulbous corm (root) and told to take a bite. Trying to impress the young lady offering it, I popped the whole thing into my mouth and began to chew. It was as if I had bitten into a handful of glass shards and acid!

The text book description is "Ingestion of calcium oxalate (the active ingredient) results in a burning sensation that has been characterized as like needles being stuck into the tongue and throat, with the crystals becoming embedded in the soft tissues of the mouth." Don't try it.

Our Native Americans discovered that the corm of this plant was a source of food and medicine. Names like Indian turnip and Iroquois breadroot refer their finding that the corm could be roasted or dried for six months to neutralize the harmful acidity. After drying, the corm was peeled and ground into flour to be made into bread (Iroquois breadroot). Medical uses were also found, and the aged corm was used as a treatment for colds and coughs and as a analgesic. Other uses were found including a poultice for snake bites, and sores, and relief from rheumatism. And like so many native plants, it was made into a tea and used an expectorant and purgative. Starch was made from the corms to stiffen clothes (starchwort).

Thom Smith welcomes your questions and comments. Email him at or write him care of The Berkshire Eagle, 75 S. Church St., Pittsfield, MA 01201


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