Two very different plants are blooming in the Angle Fly Preserve as I write this. One is native to eastern North America and is poisonous to eat, while the other was brought from Europe as a culinary herb in the 1860s. Both are plants that I have drawn and painted.
The native plant I am thinking of is the uniquely shaped Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum). I became intrigued with Jack-in-the-pulpit as a child when my fairy-tale saturated imagination saw it as something magical. The plant remains one of my favorites to draw. Its common name arises from its distinctive blossom: a large green or purple-striped spathe that reminded people of a canopied church pulpit housing a little preacher (the spadix) within. The actual flowers are very tiny, nondescript and easy to miss – male on some plants, female on others – and are found at the base of the spadix. Interestingly, female plants are reported to have two sets of leaves, while male plants have only one. I guess the female plants must work harder to photosynthesize enough food to support the growth of seeds.
The Jack-in-the-pulpit has the very good luck to be one of the few native plants that white tailed deer do not like to eat. While much of our native understory (and home gardens) is sacrificed to the appetites of hungry deer, Jack-in-the-Pulpit probably survive due to the poisonous calcium oxalate crystals they contain that produce an intense burning sensation in the mouth. Naturally, you should never eat this plant. And, as with any wildflower, you should never dig it up or cut the flower. Instead, take photographs, get out your sketchbook, or just take a good long look and then leave it in peace to multiply.
The non-native European species I would like to introduce to you is called garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) and it has been crowding out our native plants for a very long time. It is listed as a noxious plant in nine states. There are many ways that it threatens our native flora and fauna. It fools some butterflies into laying eggs on it, but then poisons their larvae. It produces poison chemicals in the soil that reduce the health of nearby native species. It has no natural predators, and even the deer won’t eat it. In fact, the deer help it spread by devouring its competition and spreading its tiny black seeds by trampling the soil.
In contrast to the Jack-in-the-pulpit, garlic mustard flowers are bunches of small, while ordinary-seeming flowers. Garlic mustard may be poisonous to our native species, but its fruit and flowers are eaten by people in salads and pestos.
Garlic mustard is a biennial, which means that each individual plant lives for two years, flowering in the second year. In the first year, it exists as a low rosette of leaves that you may mistake for a violet. Early in the spring of its second year, a tall shoot quickly arises from the center of the rosette, and lifts its cluster of little white blossoms a foot or more in the air. In your yard you will find the plants are easy to pull out by the roots if you grab the stem near the earth and especially when the soil is soft after a rain. If you learn to recognize them in their first-year rosette form, you’ll gain a head start on the following year’s seed crop.