Saturday, March 12, 2011


Or should that be 'Jacks-in-the-pulpit'? No, that would imply many Jacks in one pulpit, and it could get crowded.

I'm thinking of these rather oddball plants now because somebody asked a question about them the other night. I was giving my fern talk to a local garden club, and one of the pictures I showed included a Jack. She basically asked if she could grow them in the City and I said, 'why not?'. Her question reminded me of my husband's late great uncle, Alfred (whose brother was named, yep, Wilfred). We were once invited to dinner at his place, and he invited me to come out back to see his garden.

It was a pretty typical inner city yard. About 35' by 30', with a board fence across the back, a cedar hedge on one side, and the garage wall on the other. The garage wall was completely covered with a climbing rose, which, this particular day, was in bloom. And what bloom! I looked in awe at a  30' long wall of gorgeous, deep red, velvety roses, every one of them facing us as we stood there looking up at them. Alf told me he planted it in 1920, just after he got home from The War.

'It's not hardy here, of course,' he said. 'So every fall I loosen the roots around the top of the crown, dig a trench from there to the end of the wall, and carefully bend the rose over to lie in the trench.'

'It works,' he said.

In the spring he would dig it up, stand it straight again, and re-tie all the canes to their lattice support. The tie-ing in alone must have have taken days!

The rest of his garden was one bed, I would guess about 4' deep, running the length of the fence. And it was filled with Jack-in-the-pulpits. Hundreds of them. The ones at the back were the tallest, some of them over 3' tall, and the ones at the front were the shortest, from about 6" up to 12" or so. There were many flowers under the leaves, and they varied quite a bit in colouring. Some were all green, with slighter darker stripes, some were white with purplish stripes, and some even had hints of pink. Alf explained that the Jack-in-the-pulpit, Arisaema triphyllum, grows from a tuber very much like a tuberous begonia does. The tuber keeps getting bigger, and you can, if you wish, divide it to make more plants. He didn't, he said. He liked to see big tubers.

'Hold out your hands,' he said. 'Flat, side by side.'

I did.

'Those tubers at the back, now,' he said, 'they are as big as your two hands together.' He went on to say that the flowers would give way later in the summer to stalks carrying large shiny red berries. Each berry could have up to 8 seeds inside. He cut them off, he said, because he didn't have room for more plants, and even so, he would always miss a few and they would come up under the bigger plants. If he liked the flower, he would move it to the front to grow on, and then if he really liked it, he would make room for it further back.

Yes, you can grow them in the City, Barbara! Just give them decent soil, not too dry, not too soggy, a bit of shade, and stand back. In about 40 years, you'll have tubers the size of your two hands.

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