After the spathe (hood) dies back, Jack-in-the-pulpit fruit is more obvious, especially as the green berries turn brilliant reddish-orange at this time of year. Eventually the stem withers and the seed head falls to the ground. The tissues of Jack-in-the-pulpit, particularly the roots, contain high toxic levels of oxalic acid. The berries, if eaten, cause a burning sensation in the mouth and throat due to physical cuts caused by the crystals of calcium oxalate. Although cattle, goats, pigs and sheep are susceptible to the toxin, white-tailed deer, wild turkeys and wood thrushes appear to consume them without distress. As is obvious from this photograph, though, the berries are not in high demand.
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When black bears first emerge from hibernation, they survive mainly on emerging green vegetation in wetlands. As the season progresses, there are more and more food options to choose from, including a favorite – the corm, or underground bulb-like storage structure, of Jack-in-the-Pulpit. Even though they are large, somewhat lumbering creatures, black bears dig up and remove these corms as if they had a tiny tool designed just for this purpose. They barely disturb the earth, leaving only very small holes as evidence of their presence. A friend of mine witnessed this just outside his window one spring day, and could not believe the delicacy with which the bear extracted these morsels of food from the ground. Apparently the calcium oxalate crystals in Jack-in-the-Pulpit that cause the burning sensation in human mouths doesn’t affect bears, at least not enough to protect the plant.