(HOST) Commentator Ruth Page has lived in Vermont and enjoyed the natural world for many years. This summer, she spent some time learning more about one of her favorite native wildflowers.
(PAGE) Did you see any Jack in the Pulpit plants during the summer? We had a number of them in a woodsy area in Shelburne, and I am always intrigued by them: they look so different from most other wildflowers.
Each Jack uses last year’s underground stem, called a corm, to produce this year’s corm. From that grows a stem that produces a spathe (that’s the pulpit with its lovely curved top that protects Jack when he appears).
Like many plants, it can turn out male or female, though of course only the females will produce seeds. If the plant doesn’t take the female route, it can still reproduce: the corms can bud to make a new plant. The plant’s flowers are either male or female. The male bears the pollen but has no nectar to attract a pollinator.
However, insects are attracted to a fungusy sort of odor that the plant produces. Insects land on the flower in search of food. After sipping nectar from a female flower, they pick up pollen from a male Jack. When the insect visits the next female Jack, the pollen they’re carrying pollinates it. The male flower then withers away, but the female produces a lovely cluster of scarlet berries full of seeds. During the summer, they fall to the ground and germinate. Some are consumed by birds and carried to new habitats in the birds’ droppings.
During the growing season, Jack’s corm stores food; if there’s plenty to eat, the plant it produces is likely to be female; if there’s less food, the new plant will be male. But if that male plant gets lots of nutrients to increase its store of energy, it can become female. If the female goes hungry, she can revert to being a male. It’s a great arrangement: don’t die of starvation, just change your sex. The new male can again become a female if he can rebuild his food storage.
Humans are so accustomed to thinking of sex as determined before birth, and unchangeable except in the rare cases we read about in the newspapers, we often forget how casual it can be in the animal and plant worlds. Some fish can be male or female in accordance with their habitats; crocodiles’ sex can depend on the temperature at their birth; aphids can produce young without engaging in sex at all; if there are many females in a group and males are needed, they can have offspring that are all male.
So the next time you admire a Jack in his pulpit, remember that the next generation he produces will be male or female, depending on circumstances, and can change from one to the other.