Backyardsafari's Blog

Environmental Inspiration in Your Own Backyard

Lessons from an “Edible” Plant April 26, 2010

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There is a book at my parent’s house, the cover of which I can see vividly, but the title of which I cannot quite remember. It is a light blue, with a picture of a plant–red? Or yellow? I called my father and sent him on a fact-finding mission to the bookshelves in an upstairs bedroom. It turns out the book is called A Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants by Lee Allen Peterson . The reason why I needed this book title is because I want to talk about my relationship with Jack-in-the-Pulpit, and the book plays an important role in this story.

Jack in the pulpit is a plant that grows commonly in the woods behind my house, and probably near yours as well, if you live in eastern North America. It is actually in the same family as the skunk cabbage, which we talked about here, and is also pollinated by flies. You can see it has some of the same red coloring as the skunk cabbage, although it lacks the same pungent odor.  I have always liked Jack in the Pulpit for the very reason it was named–it looks like there is a small person hidden away inside the cup of the plant.

See him hiding in there?  Here is a picture with the top part lifted up so you can see Jack:

“Jack” is actually the spadix of the plant, which produces tiny flowers.

The book I mentioned comes into the story in my later elementary school years, one summer of which I decided to try some of the edible plants in our area. The book had some information about local edible plants, and I used this to find out the right preparation methods. I only tried two plants, one of which was making a coffee-like drink out of dried chicory root, which I may talk about some other time. The other was Jack-in-the-Pulpit roots. My father had actually helped my brother and I try this once before.  This old drawing shows what the root looks like, which is on the right hand side of the plant:

You can cut the root into thin slices, dry them in the oven, and then eat them as little chips. I remember them being slightly spicy at the time.  It turns out this ‘spiciness’ is actually from a crystal called ‘calcium oxalate,’ which the plant has in all of its parts and creates a burning sensation, which I found out the next time I tried to work with it.  A few years after trying it the first time, I dug a few up in the woods behind my house and proceeded to cut the roots.  Suddenly my entire body was burning and itching. I had never experienced anything like it before, and had to run off and take a shower before the feeling subsided. At the time (before google searches!), I assumed I was allergic to something in the roots, and decided not to try that again.  Later, though, I became curious about whether I was just allergic to the roots, or to the entire plant.

In all of my young brilliance, I decided to conduct an experiment. I was at my grandmother’s house at the time, and saw some Jack in the Pulpit with berries in the nearby woods. I knew to avoid the roots, but decided to pick the berries and see what happened.  Almost immediately my hands were overcome with a burning sensation. I had to run back to the house and wash them for a while with soap and water before it finally went away.

So that was the end of my touching Jack in the Pulpit!  Now that I have done some more research on the plant I know this burning is because of the calcium oxalate crystals, and not necessarily some allergic reaction, although for a while I delighted in telling people I was allergic to Jack in the Pulpit, because none of them had ever heard of it.

Like the other plants I have talked about so far in this blog, the Jack in the Pulpit holds a special place in my heart. They were a common sighting in my childhood, and despite the physical pain they caused me, I have always loved that memory.  In addition to sending me the title of the book that inspired me to try some edible plants, my father also sent me a quote from Anna Comstock’s book, The Handbook of Nature Study which was published in 1911. This book was actually a standard textbook for lots of teachers at the time, and has both information and heart. About Jack in the Pulpit, Anna writes, “This corm was used as a food by the Indians, which fact gave the plant the name of Indian turnip.  I think all children test the corm as a food for curiosity, and retire from the field with a new respect for the stoicism of the Indian when enduring torture; but this is an undeserved tribute.  When raw, these corms are peppery because they are filled with minute, needle-like crystals which, however, soften with boiling, and the Indians boiled them before eating them.”

I love that in 1911 it was common for kids everywhere to be so curious about a plant that is today relatively unknown to the average person that they just had to try it. And I have to admit I enjoy that, even though I was born 70 years later, I shared this same experience.

I do want to emphasize, though, the fact that all of the parts of Jack in the Pulpit have this chemical and are poisonous if ingested! It is only safe to eat if prepared properly, which I wouldn’t recommend trying unless you have spent a lot of time researching this subject. In addition to the possible chemicals in plants, many plants look similar to each other, and you have to be very careful that you are getting the right one. Also, you should be careful with any plants that might have come into contact with fertilizers or other outside chemicals. You don’t have to be like me, or like the kids living in the early 1900s, to form your own special bond with the plants around you!

So get out there and show your kids or friends where Jack is hiding! Use the red berries on the plant as an opportunity to talk about why they shouldn’t try to eat plants that they see around them, no matter how good they look. Look for other plants in your local woods and backyard–we have talked about some of my favorites so far, but which ones do you like best, and why? Do you have any memories about certain plants from your own childhood? Perhaps most important of all, what kind of memories would you like the current generation of children to have when they are your age?

This last one is a question we all need to ask ourselves, and then do whatever we can to reach our children and communities. How many people know about Jack in the Pulpit now compared to in 1911? How many people will know about it in 50 more years? There is no reason for this information to be lost, we just need to show those around us how interesting–how magical–nature can be!

I’ll meet you out there.

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