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Audio Guide to Spring: Jacks-in-the-pulpit and warblers

jack in the pulpit sits in the forest.
A Jack-in-the-pulpit plant can develop male or female flowers depending upon how much energy it has stored in its underground corm. The corm looks like a root, but it's really a modified stem. When a plant is young or doesn’t have much stored energy, it might only develop one leaf. Each leaf has three leaflets. If a plant has a lot of stored energy, it can develop the “pulpit” (also known as the spathe) and the “jack” (also known as the spadix). The true flowers are located within the “pulpit” at the foot of the “jack.” It is the gender of the true flowers that can vary. (Photo: Bill Erickson)

IPR's Red Pine Radio brings you nature spotting tips and wildlife news from northern Michigan.

Today is Global Big Day, a celebration of birds and birding, and warm days this week have all kinds of birds arriving just in time. We're also seeing wildflowers popping up everywhere.


If you’re only going to go out once this spring to look at wildflowers, this is the week! We're hearing reports of spring beauties, trillium, trout lilies, poppies, dutchman's britches and the interestingly named Jacks-in-the-pulpit.

"[The] leaf-like tube is the pulpit with a little canopy cover. And the club-like Jack is the preacher that you can see inside the tube,” says Paula Dreeszen, a volunteer preserve steward at Pete’s Woods in Benzie County.

jack-in-the-pulpit seen from below
A Jack-in-the-pulpit plant can live as long as 25 years and attain up to two feet in height. If grown from seed, it can take four or five years to develop its first flower. (Photo: Cheryl Bartz)

You can gently lift the flap over the pulpit without harming the plant. Go ahead and look inside. The pulpit is not the actual flower.

“The true flowering parts of a Jack-in-the-pulpit are down at Jack’s feet,” Dreeszen says.

Jacks-in-the-pulpit, like other spring ephemerals, have evolved intricate strategies to survive. Understanding them can make your trip outdoors even more rewarding.

For example, the plants can switch from male to female depending upon how much energy they've stored underground in their corms, which are like enlarged roots.

When they've stored a lot of energy, the plants develop female flowers. The carbohydrates they've stored will help them grow berries.

In leaner years, or if a plant is very young, it will only grow leaves or male flowers, which use much less energy to produce pollen.

Jacks-of-the-pulpit have also developed a special relationship with an insect to ensure pollination.

“The plant emits an odor like a fungus, which attracts the fungus gnat. But they find themselves in this tubular structure with slippery walls and they slide to the bottom. They’re not able to fly out the top,” Dreeszen says.

If the gnats are trapped in a male plant, they fly round and round trying to escape. Eventually, covered with pollen, they find their way out a small hole in the bottom of the flower.

If the next flower they enter is a female, the pollen rubs off on the flowers, fertilizing them so that they produce bright red berries by fall.

There’s a huge disadvantage for the gnat, though. The female flowers have no escape hatch. The gnats live out their lives trapped at the bottom of the pulpit.

And that is the story of the Jack — or is it Jill? — in-the-pulpit.


We're in peak spring migration season — tropical birds are arriving daily, and will continue to through May 20.

Brian Allen, a local birding expert from Manistee says just in the past few days, he's seen lots of brightly colored birds: a Cape May warbler, a great crested flycatcher and a redstart.

An American redstart stands on the ground.
American Redstarts are one of the early warblers to arrive back in northern Michigan. The vivid orange patches on their sides, wings and tails make them easy to identify. (Photo: Sharkolot via Pixabay)

"Good things are coming now, but it just gets better and better and better as the next couple weeks come by," he says. "It's a time everybody looks forward to, and we're out in the field looking at the warbler flocks coming through and hoping for rare birds."

Brian Allen stands with his binoculars.
Brian Allen is a local birding expert from Manistee, Michigan. He serves on the boards of Saving Birds Through Habitat, Onekama Parks and Recreation and Lake Bluff Farms in Manistee. He’s also a reviewer for ebird.org.

Recently, at Platte Point in Sleeping Bear Dunes, Allen spotted an exceptionally rare bird for northern Michigan: a Say's Phoebe.

"That's a bird that you usually see in Utah and Arizona and New Mexico, not in Benzie County. It’s fun. This time of year is exciting because you get more things like that,” he says.

But warblers, often called “the butterflies of the bird world,” are the main attraction right now.

"With warblers, there's a lot of strategy, and watching the weather is important. What you want is to have one of those beautiful starry nights with southeast winds blowing. Then all the birds are migrating because they depend on star constellations," he says.

A Cape May warbler sits on a tree branch.
Cape May warblers winter in the Caribbean in lush habitats with plenty of insects and flowers and return to Michigan during the spring migration in May. Adult males have a distinctive chestnut cheek patch and yellow collar. (Photo: Johnny_px via Pixabay)

When they get to Lake Michigan, they stop on the shoreline in big concentrations to feed on midges before they disperse throughout the region.

To see warblers yourself, go to Platte Point and Otter Creek in Sleeping Bear Dunes, the Baldy Trail at Arcadia Dunes, the tip of Old Mission Peninsula and Schumsky Road in Traverse City.


Today is Global Big Day, a huge bird celebration that anyone can participate in. Whether you go out in your backyard or visit one of the region's hotspots, enter what you see and hear at ebird.org, where Cornell Lab collects sightings from around the world.

Let us know what you’re seeing! Send your photos of northern Michigan flora and fauna to ipr@interlochen.org. Put "Audio Guide to Spring" in the subject line.

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