Hearts and Jacks

It’s spring awakening time in the garden, and two of my particular favorites have popped:  Bleeding Heart (dicentra spectabilis) and Jack-in-the-Pulpit (arisaema triphyllum).  These two plants, so strident yet so vulnerable, really capture the spirit of the season for me more so than any other development.  The fact that their blooms are so short-lived makes them all the more precious.

Really beautiful.  Most of the plants in my garden were chosen for their European heritage, but these two have different origins.  The Bleeding Heart comes from China, and the Jack-in-the-Pulpit is a native wildflower. Somehow they snuck into my Eurocentric garden, thank goodness. Bleeding Hearts are often referred to as “old-fashioned” flowers but in fact they were not introduced to the west (by intrepid plant hunter Robert Fortune) until the 1840s.  I really prefer the white version of Dicentra, but the pink variety seems to be a lot more common, and more inspirational to artists and designers. Given the common name, you can imagine that there have been lots of literal metaphorical representations of the plant over the years, which I will spare you, but also some really lovely illustrations.

Miss Harris, Luna Moth on a Bleeding Heart, watercolor and white gouache over graphite on paper, 19th century (Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University); William Hood Fitch illustration for The Natural Order of the Vegetable Kingdom by Daniel Oliver, 1874;  “Flying Heart” wallpaper, late 19th-early 20th century (Victoria & Albert Museum, London); Jane Sassaman “Iris & Bleeding Hearts” fabric at amazon.com.

Jack-in-the-Pulpits didn’t have to be hunted down; they were right here in the shady woodlands of North America.  They don’t seem to be really appreciated until the mid-nineteenth century, when they were alternatively referred to as “Indian Turnips”.  George Goodale’s Wildflowers of America (1886) explains their oratorical name:  “the arched roof over the spare, erect body, bears a suggestive resemblance to the old-fashioned ‘sounding-board’ placed over a pulpit to increase the resonance of the speaker’s voice; and from this remote likeness has come one of the common names of the plant–Jack-in-the-Pulpit.”  Wildflowers contains 51 colored plates by illustrator Isaac Sprague, including that of  Jack-in-the-Pulpit below.

This plant, and particularly its flower, has inspired artists as diverse as Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald and Georgia O’Keeffe, who produced a whole series of Jack paintings:  she saw a bit more sensuality in the flower than Dr. Goodale did above!  Her six canvases, completed in 1930 and later donated to the National Gallery of Art, chart the evolution and essence of the flower:  below are numbers 2 and 3, depicting full bloom. More attainable, and permanent, images of Jack-in-the-pulpit can be found on the cotton fabric offered by Etsy seller fabricsandtrimmings.

6 responses to “Hearts and Jacks

  • Sarah Waldock

    What wonderfully exotic Jack-in-The-pulpits! Far more exciting and gaudy than the native English ones, thank you for sharing, it’s great to see what the humble wild arum can become… my ordinary ones aren’t in flower yet, just coming into bud in their north-facing spot. I think this is a plant which has the greatest number of aliases of all plants – the ones I know are:
    Wild Arum, Jack-in-the-pulpit, cuckoo pint, Lords-and-ladies, wake-robin, Dog’s dingle. I looked it up and found that there are over 100 names for it including starch root, [which is a later name as the starch in the root is a property that was discovered in the late 16th century when it was used to starch those fantastical ruffs of the Elizabethan era.]

  • daseger

    I didn’t know that (about the starch), Sarah! Thanks! This kind of information is right up my alley.

  • susangeckle

    Beautiful images. I got to see Georgia O’Keeffe’s Jack-in-the-pulpits in the flesh and bone at an exhibition of hers and for me the tlower and the woman are forever intertwined.

  • William Legault

    My grandfather had a Jack-in-the-Pulpit in his garden on Orchard Street. I learned to weed and plant in that garden as a kid. Later, after he died circumstances dictated that I move that plants to another part of the garden. My grandmother was convinced it would not survive, but it did. That garden is now long gone.

    Last year I noticed one in the front garden of the old Fraternity building to the left of Red’s Sandwich Shop on Central St.

  • The Dusty Victorian

    Hello Donna,
    I don’t have a Bleading Heart, but do intend to get one this season, a white one is preferred as well. But I do have many, many Jack-in-the-Pulpits in my shaded area and I think they are gorgeous. Lovely post.

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