Sunday, September 19, 2010

Jack-in-the-pulpit and its cruel deception

Early in the spring you can often see Jack-in-the-pulpits in your walks through the forest. The peculiar shape of its flowers gives it its name, a big leaf, the spathe, makes up the pulpit and a rod inside, the spadix, is the person. It is the spadix that carries the minute and numerous flowers; some plants have only masculine flowers inside the pulpit and others have only female flowers. How are they pollinated? They don’t have flashy colors nor perfume, they are not placed in a prominent place like most flowers but they are close to the ground and hidden beneath the leaves. So what kind of insects do they attract? The jack-in-the-pulpit belongs in the same family as the calla lily and the skunk cabbage, this family is notorious for using all kind of ruses to attract pollinators without giving them any reward and Jack-in-the-pulpit is no exception.

Apparently the flower of Jack-in-the-pulpit smells somewhat like mushrooms and attracts fungus gnats. The insects fall inside the pulpit and if it is a male flower they get covered with pollen in their effort to escape. The sides are so slippery that they can’t climb up and keep falling back to the bottom, fortunately there is a small hole at the base of the pulpit and they eventually find their way out; they leave the place no worse for the wear, although probably somewhat mortified by their mistake. They don’t seem to learn their lesson and keep on venturing inside other Jack-in-the-pulpit flowers. If they fall into a female flower they leave their load of pollen on it, but in this case they cannot escape, there is no opening at the base. Every maturing fruit of a Jack-in-the-pulpit contains one or several entombed gnats wrapped by the dried up spathe. That is how this plant repays its pollinators, a cruel deception indeed!

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© Beatriz Moisset. 2012