Jack-in-the-Pulpit and Green Dragon, like all plants in the Arisaema genus, have a rare and unique physical trait that sets them apart from most other plants in the world: sequential hermaphroditism, also known as dichogamy in botany. While hermaphroditic plants are incredibly common, only sequential hermaphrodites are capable of changing their sex entirely. Other hermaphroditic plants remain hermaphroditic throughout their lives, but sequential hermaphrodites may be female one year, male the next two years, then female again. From a botanical standpoint, these plants are incredible transformers, capable of a feat that few other plants can match. Within North America, aside from the two Arisaema’s, only Acer pensylvanicum (Striped Maple) is known to change sex during their lifetime.
The reasons for these changes are not well understood, but energy allocation and environmental conditions may play a role in when and why a plant changes sex. The female reproductive cycle, for example, requires a substantial amount of energy. The plant must have access to enough stored energy, sunlight, and soil nutrients in order to produce fertile seeds. If a plant has spent their energy reserves producing seeds the season before, they may revert to male the following season or two to allow for a period of relative rest and recuperation. This is because the production of pollen (sperm) requires less energy than producing fruit/seeds.
As a queer person who identifies as third gender, it is exciting to learn about parallels to human gender variance in the non-human world. The reasons for gender variance and changing sex are certainly different for humans and plants, but there is something healing in seeing reflections of ourselves in non-human nature. As people living in complex and often human centric societies, it can be easy to forget or be unaware of our relationship with nature. For queer people in particular we are sometimes met with arguments of being “unnatural”; this further expands the imagined gap between humans and nature. It can also be damaging to a person’s sense of presence or existence. When plants or non-human animals share, on some level, a trait that we can identify with, it can help to solidify a person’s sense of place in the world and their “realness”. Knowing that some plants change sex validates how truly natural it is for a person to change their gender or sex from the one they were assigned at birth.
There are, of course, animals and other plant species capable of changing sex — clownfish being most famous. Indeed, many animal examples of sequential hermaphrodites occur in aquatic species like fish and mollusks. I’ve chosen to focus on a terrestrial plant here because they are easy to interact with and grow abundantly in my region. Just like seeing an animal you identify with in person, I find a sense of excitement and joy when interacting with a plant that “speaks” to me on a personal level.
Two illustrations by Vincent Frano: On the left, a Jack-in-the-Pulpit from 2013; on the right, arisaemas from 2022
I often think of how people enjoy comparing themselves to animals, identifying with traits they see in their own lives or personalities. How many times have we heard someone relate their mothering instincts to those of a bear or a lioness? Or how about a person describing themself as a “pack rat” or “magpie” when referring to their penchant for collecting objects? People may also relate to the social structure of other animals, like a wolf pack or the monogamous relationship of swans. When we identify with these traits, even if they are symbolic, we are feeling a connection to nature and a deeper connection to ourselves. Metaphor, symbols, and stories drawn from nature can all give people a stronger sense of identity. For queer people, having such stories or symbols can also be a source of empowerment, particularly when based on factual information. It’s not always easy to relate to plants — who don’t move or communicate like animals — but I hope that Arisaema’s story may spark a sense of curiosity and connection within the plant world.
A short summary of the Arisaema’s unique trait is included on the back of this greeting card from Small Victories! Send it to your botanically curious friends or to a queer person in your life.
Life and Environment
Both Jack-in-the-Pulpit and Green Dragon can be found in rich, woodlands and wetland margins. They can be found in eastern North America from Nova Scotia, west to Manitoba and Minnesota, and south to Florida and eastern Texas. They prefer dappled sunlight to shade and can often be found in the understory of mixed hardwood forests, particularly with Maples, Pines, Hemlocks, and Oaks. The deciduous leaf litter is key to protecting their roots which like moist and nutrient rich soils. Green Dragon requires slightly more damp conditions and is most often seen growing near streams, ponds, or rivers. Both plants emerge in early spring (Mar to Apr) and will flower between March and July (depending on location). The spathe of Jack-in-the-Pulpit varies in pattern from bold to muted stripes and may have colors ranging from white, yellow, green, purple, red, and burgundy. Green Dragon typically has a solid green spathe with a long tongue-like spadix that extends well outside of the spathe.
In summer through early fall, plants in their female form will produce clusters of brilliantly red berries.
Photo: Jack-in-the-Pulpit, Vincent Frano, 2014
How to Grow
- Find a reputable garden center who offers cultivated (not wild collected) plants.
* It is not advisable to collect plants in the wild as Arisaemas are considered vulnerable to endangered in some regions.
Some Reputable Plant Sources:
- Prairie Moon Nursery
- Nasami Farms
- Wild Seeds Project
SAFETY NOTE: Both Jack-in-the-Pulpit and Green Dragon are considered toxic if any part of the plant is ingested. The leaves and roots contain calcium oxalate crystals and other toxins which can cause severe mouth and throat irritation and swelling, among other effects. The berries are also considered toxic. Keep away from pets and children!
A Note on Herbal Medicines: While this plant has been used medicinally in the past, this does not mean it should be continued to be used today — not all plants that can be used as medicine should be. There are many other medicinal plants without toxicity concerns that are more conducive to general and home use. Skilled practitioners with advanced knowledge of phytochemistry and herbal medicines may chose to use plants containing toxins, however, this does not mean such plants should be used by beginner or intermediate herbalists or home herbalists.
If you are interested in the medicinal uses of such plants, seek a skilled herbalist and ask yourself if the medicine of this plant is truly, absolutely necessary for your use. Arisaemas, for example, are slow growing, long lived, and are threatened in some regions. It is likely there is a faster growing and more abundant plant that could be used instead, toxicity concerns aside. As with all plant medicines, the plants must be approached with respect and an understanding that simply because it exists does not mean it is for we humans to use as we see fit.
Sequential Hermaphroditism from the Enclyclopedia of Evolutionary Biology (2016)
Sources for Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum):
- North Carolina Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox: Arisaema triphyllum
- Wild Seed Project: Arisaema triphyllum
- Illinois Wildflowers: Arisaema triphyllum
- Minnesota Wildflowers: Arisaema triphyllum
- Plant Delights Nursery: A Comprehensive Guide to Jack-in-the-Pulpits
- Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center Plant Database: Arisaema triphyllum
Sources for Green Dragon (Arisaema dracontium):
- Minnesota Wildflowers: Arisaema dracontium
- Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center Plant Database: Arisaema dracontium
- North Carolina Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox: Arisaema dracontium
- Illinois Wildflowers: Arisaema dracontium
- In Defense of Plants posts about Arisaema dracontium
About the author:
Vincent Frano is an avid student of nature. He is trained as an herbalist with over 10 years of experience in European traditions with knowledge of Ayurvedic and North American herbs. He holds a BS in Sustainable Horticulture from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst where he focused on herbal medicines, native plants, invasive species, and ecosystem restoration. Vincent is the co-founder of Small Victories and is the lead illustrator for Small Victories' products.