Northland Nature: Jack-in-the-pulpit red pops in green forests
Retired teacher Larry Weber, a Barnum resident, is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him via Katie Rohman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
It is hard to not notice the colors in the landscape in late September. Leaf tones of trees are delightful. Breaking up of the green chlorophyll allows the ever-present yellow xanthophyll to show up. And most trees in the woods now take on this color that was present, but overshadowed by green, all summer.
Along the edges of the woods, in more sunlight, trees are holding leaves of red pigments called anthocyanin. While yellows show in the absence of chlorophyll, trees use excess leaf sugars to produce the red pigment. Being in the sunlight, this acts as a kind of “sunscreen” for leaf cells.
Each year in late September, it appears that the same kinds of trees are more likely to have red leaves. It begins with a couple small trees, sumac and cherry, turning this bright color. This color phase was quickly continued by three more small trees; dogwood, highbush cranberry and American hazel. (Interesting to note that while American hazel is red, the very similar beaked hazel is yellow.)
The vine Virginia creeper (woodbine) is red with its leaves of five, as is poison ivy with leaves of three. The brightest of any large tree is that of red maple, but many red oaks also carry similar foliage. Looking lower among the bushes and shrubs, we see that rose, raspberry, blackberry and even some blueberries have red leaves as well.
But red on plants is not limited to leaves at this time. Ripening apples bring more than good taste to the scene. Cousins, crab apples and hawthorns, sport reds, too. It is interesting to note that some hawthorns (there are many kinds) are the first trees to drop leaves in the region, revealing the clusters of red fruits that look like miniature apples. Highbush cranberry (not a cranberry) has groups of juicy red berries, while winterberry holly, in the swamps, has smaller ones.
Red leaves and fruits appear to be a way of advertising them to hungry birds and mammals. Nearly all have seeds within and the consumed berries will be carried off. Such dispersal is what the plant wants. Earlier this season, red elderberry and pin cherry did the same.
Among the lower plants in the forest, a few also produce red berries. Back in May, we noted the flowers of trillium, baneberry and false Solomon-seal. Since then, all have formed bright berries. Another one, Jack-in-the-pulpit ,does so, too, and may be quite a surprise.
When we saw this plant with its unique flower in May, it did not look anything like what we see now. The unusual floral in the vernal woods held a structure appearing as a green-purple cylindrical shape. Sticking up was a finger-like growth called a spadix (jack) and over it a folding leaf-like spathe, appearing like jack was in a pulpit. Insects attracted to the lower part were able to pollinate it.
In the midst of all the greening in the forest, we forgot it. During the following weeks, the pollinated plant grew green berries to help with reproduction. Now in late summer or fall, with flowers gone, we see the berry cluster that has matured to red. When first seeing them, it is hard to make a connection with the flower that we saw in May. But looking higher on the plant, we see the large three-part leaves similar to the spring. Jack was a delight to see in spring and though quite changed now, still a delight.
Jack-in-the-pulpit is another plant holding red in this colorful botanical time of late September.