Cowslip? Jack-in-the-pulpit? How spring wildflowers got their names

The early blooming flowers that decorate the forest floor are some of the most welcome signs of spring. If you have a chance to visit a wooded preserve in early June, you won't have to walk far from the car to find many of these delicate beauties.

But did you know that the names of these plants are often as colorful as their blossoms? With that in mind, let's take a closer look at three woodland wildflowers.

Virginia bluebell or Virginia cowslip (Mertensia virginica)

The nature center where I work is probably best known for it spectacular masses of Virginia bluebells. Once you see its blue, bell-shaped flowers, the first name makes sense ... but cowslip? What is that? Actually, cowslip has its origin in the Anglo-Saxon word "cuslyppe;" "cu" meaning cow and "slyppe" for slop or dung.

Another wildflower, marsh marigold, also has cowslip as an alternate moniker. Marsh marigolds, as the name implies, prefers to grow in wet sites. Similarly, Virginia cowslip favors moist shaded areas and bottomlands. It is likely that the ground in which these wildflowers grew reminded early European settlers of pastures laden with cow-slop. Or, perhaps, they were found blossoming in the cuslyppe.

White or large-flowered trillium (Trillium grandiflorum)

With this trillium, if you know the common name, you are already familiar with the scientific name. This is, arguably, the most appropriately named of the forest wildflowers.

Everything about this plant comes in threes. It has three broad leaves, three white petals, three sepals, three-celled ovaries and its fruit, a red berry, features three ribs. It should come as no surprise that its genus name is derived from tri, Latin for three.

Jack- (or Jill-) in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum)

It is the peculiar design of its blossom that has earned this plant its common name. It sports a striped green hood or "pulpit" which curls over "Jack," a club-shaped organ known as a spadix. It is at the base of the spadix, where the tiny flowers, either male or female, are to be found. How can you tell a male Jack from a female Jill?

The simple answer is count the leaves. If it has one three-parted leaf, it's a male. If it has two, it's a female. And yes, to you Latin scholars, the species name, triphyllum, refers to this wildflower's three-parted leaf.

The fascinating part of this species' natural history is that a particular plant's gender is negotiable. That is to say, one year's Jack may be next year's Jill. If a large female has a few bad years, researchers have found that in the following year it may produce only one leaf and flower as a male. The reverse is also true. Should that scrawny male enjoy good growing conditions, it can regain its status as a large, multi-leaved female.

This sequential hermaphroditism makes me wonder what we should properly call this wildflower. Jack-in-the-Pulpit? Or Jill-in-the-Pulpit?

• Mark Spreyer is executive director of the Stillman Nature Center in Barrington. Email him at

Virginia bluebell is also known as Virginia cowslip. Courtesy of Jim Kaltsas
This flower has had its hood lifted so you can see "Jack" in his pulpit. Courtesy of Stillman Nature Center
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