Jack-in-the-pulpit? Or Jill?

Guest post by Pati Vitt

The weather has varied a lot so far this spring. Minor snow squalls and hailstorms trade off with wonderfully warm, sunny days, which seem to call out, encouraging us to find the signs of spring. When the season brings all the beauty and promise of plants and flowers emerging from the winter, I feel as if I am seeing friends old and new once again. It’s rather comforting to know that regardless of what occurs in human society, spring carries on in the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois.

Many of the floral signs of spring are ephemeral, created by healthy populations of plant species that only emerge above ground for six to eight weeks—between the start of the spring warm-up and the closure of the canopy, when the trees grow a full set of leaves. Their live-fast lifestyle is an evolved response to their shade intolerance. Ephemerals need to finish flowering and fruiting while they have enough sunlight, and also put something away for a rainy day. They stash the sugar they make during photosynthesis in underground storage organs such as corms, bulbs, and rhizomes. The starchy carbon will see them through the winter into the next spring.

Some residents of our woodlands and prairies announce the arrival of spring in understated ways that require careful attention. The early-flowering harbinger of spring (Erigenia bulbosa), and later bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), are two examples. Other signs of spring are exuberant and showy, such as the carpets of marsh marigold (Caltha palustris) at Ryerson Conservation Area in Riverwoods. And of course, no spring display is quite so welcome as large-flowered trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) in full bloom. (This sight is only possible when the white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) population is stable; otherwise these beautiful plants are eaten out of existence.)

Not all spring wildflowers are showy, though, and not all of them are ephemeral. Arriving later in the season, Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) is one of the most common spring wildflowers in our woodlands. It’s usually entirely green in Lake County. Rarely, some maroon stripes may also be seen on the inflorescence, the reproductive portion of the plant.

Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) is a beautiful resident of deciduous woodlands. It typically grows one to two feet tall. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) is a beautiful resident of deciduous woodlands. It typically grows one to two feet tall. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.

Each plant produces a spike of tiny flowers called a spadix that is hidden by a whorled, leafy skirt enclosing the flowering spike so completely it even folds over the top. This bract is called the spathe, and it hides a secret about Jack-, or maybe Jill-, in-the-pulpit. The spadix may have flowers that are entirely made up of pollen-bearing anthers—male flowers. Or the spadix may have only tiny female flowers with no anthers in sight.

Plants that produce a male spadix are much smaller and bear only a single, three-parted leaf. Plants that produce a female spadix are larger and almost always have two, three-parted leaves. One female leaf is often larger than the single leaf produced by even the biggest male plant.

A female Jack-in-the-pulpit individual. Note the two, three-parted leaves. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
A female Jack-in-the-pulpit individual. Note the two, three-parted leaves. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.

Jack-in-the-pulpit is sometimes used as a model system to explore reproductive costs in plants. Generally speaking, the energy cost for a plant to produce female flowers and then give them the supplies they need to develop embryos, seeds, and fruits is higher than the cost to produce male flowers and pollen, even when pollen is released in copious amounts. With Jack-in-the-pulpit, the cost of supplying embryos and developing fruit is so high that the rate of photosynthesis is also higher in female plants, measured on a per unit leaf area. Simply put, they need more energy.

A meter measures the rate of photosynthesis of a Jack-in-the-pulpit individual. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
A meter measures the rate of photosynthesis of a Jack-in-the-pulpit individual. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.

Along with variable rates of photosynthesis, Jack-in-the-pulpit has another unusual adaptation that helps offset the cost of reproduction. An individual plant can display as male or female in any given year and will “choose” which, depending upon the nutrients available in its corm. Plants that are primarily female tend to cluster in gaps in the tree canopy, while male plants are more prevalent where the canopy is closed and less sunlight is available. When a tree falls, creating a gap, the gender ratio shifts accordingly.

The fleshy fruits of Jack-in-the-pulpit each measure about a quarter-inch across. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
The fleshy fruits of Jack-in-the-pulpit each measure about a quarter-inch across. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.

Watching Jack-in-the-pulpit emerge in the later part of the season reminds me spring itself is ephemeral. The gender-changing dynamics of this species fascinated me so much, I selected it as the focus of my dissertation for my PhD at the University of Connecticut. Seeing this plant here in Illinois brings a sense of nostalgia for the woods and fields of New England, and for the first days of life after the birth of my daughter, when life itself was literally brand-new. It helps me feel grounded in my adopted home.

This year, as I watch the trees leaf out from behind windows rather than in-person, I know Jack-in-the-pulpit is out there, following the season. And I know this plant is green, wonderful green, from flowering until it matures its bright, red fruits in late summer and fall. My friend will still be there to greet me when I’m finally able to emerge, too.

Want to learn even more about spring wildflowers? Take a plant-tastic virtual wildflower walk through Ryerson Conservation Area in Riverwoods. Eileen Davis and Mark Hurley, Environmental Educators, share interesting tidbits about species found there, from Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) to cutleaf toothwort (Dentaria laciniata).

Monitoring in the morning

Post by Brett Peto

Good things start at seven in the morning. That’s when our group of four hiked 15 minutes off-trail into the heart of Middlefork Savanna in Lake Forest, part of the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois.

The air was warm, the sunshine spread everywhere. Spiderwort blooms were freshly open, a waist-high meadow of bluish-purple fireworks. We found the steel T-post marking the start of the day’s first transect and the red flag for the first plot.

Then we gathered our tools. A one-meter-square collapsible wooden quadrat, retractable tape measure, clipboard, data sheets, and each other’s knowledge of plants.

Well, my own knowledge, not so much. I was there to take photos and observe the three experts onsite: Pati Vitt, Manager of Ecological Restoration; Ken Klick, Restoration Ecologist II; and Pete Jackson, who authored a 2009 study on this preserve’s plant communities that served as his thesis for a master’s degree program. In my head, I called them the Plant Team.

Ken stands in a field of spiderwort. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.

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Time to make a moment

This gallery contains 18 photos.

Post by Brett Peto

Time can never be stopped, sped up, or slowed down. It started long before now and will continue far after. But with photographs, we can pause time, pin it in front of us, and study reality. It’s like kneeling at a riverbank and scooping a handful of water. The current stops in your palm, but just a foot beneath it carries on. Photos take time to make a moment.

With nearly 31,000 acres to explore, many moments are possible in the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois. An eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis) landing with one foot, wings at sharp angles. A cluster of milkweed seeds hanging on to their pod by threads of floss. Sunflowers and sunbeams, two shades of honey mixing in the air. I’ve collected these special moments and more in a gallery below.

All photos featured were taken by the truly skillful photographers in our group Flickr pool. Each of these images, these presses of the pause button and scoops out of the river, were captured in 2018. Our sincere thanks go to every photographer who shares their time and talent documenting the flora, fauna, and natural areas of Lake County.

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A parade of colors

Guest post by Nan Buckardt

Watching kids play in a pool, waiting for burgers to come off the grill, sitting on a curb enjoying a parade—these are all images that I conjure when daydreaming about summer.

Luckily, I don’t have to wait to watch a parade; I can see a parade every day this summer by taking a walk in our Lake County Forest Preserves.

Not the type of parade with floats and brass bands, but nature’s parade of colors, textures and blooms. My favorite preserves to see this parade are those that have splendid expanses of prairie.

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Virtual wildflower walk

Post by Jen Berlinghof

April is the month when every day seems to bring a new bird flying into the woodland, a new amphibian calling from the pond, a new mammal poking along the river, a new insect hatching in the prairie, and, most of all, a new plant unfurling from the forest floor.

April through the end of May provides ideal conditions to enjoy spring wildflowers. These plants are also called “ephemerals,” which means “lasting for a very short time.” Spring ephemerals take advantage of abundant light in the woodland before leaves emerge in the canopy above. Ephemerals complete their entire life cycle before shade covers the forest floor.

If you haven’t visited your favorite Lake County Forest Preserve lately, come along with me on this virtual wildflower walk to see what’s blooming now and what’s to come.


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Ghost of the prairie

Post by Jen B

Many years ago, while hiking through a prairie at dusk, I saw a stalk of delicate white flowers. They seemed to rise and hover above the surrounding plants like a group of little dancing ghosts. This was the first and last time I ever saw an eastern prairie fringed orchid (Platanthera leucophaea). Due to its dwindling numbers and hidden habitats, this rare plant has reached almost mythical status—a holy grail of sorts in the Midwest. We’re thrilled that this endangered native orchid seems to be gaining a foothold in the Lake County Forest Preserves, which are home to some of the largest remaining populations. Just this month, one of our restoration ecologists discovered an orchid in bloom (photo below). It was found at one of the preserves known to provide habitat for this species but is the first documentation of a population at the site.


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Goldenrod galls

September in Lake County, Illinois is a month of big sky punctuated by tips of tall prairie plants in an array of autumnal colors. Before the trees really get going with their own colorful show, sparks of bright yellow from the many varieties of goldenrod (Solidago spp.) dominate the open spaces. Most of the summer these plants go unnoticed, adding merely another green hue to the lush surroundings, but September is their time to shine. What may also go unnoticed, even now as goldenrod demands our attention, is the hidden world inside each plant in the form of a gall.

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