Woods Dragons

Revised from an article from A Naturalist’s Cabin; Constructing a Dream
Plume/Penguin USA, NY, 1991
by Cathy Johnson

Beyond this point there be dragons. The ancient maps of the world bore this legend at the demarcation between the known and the unknown; it’s as good a description as any. That elusive place is more internal than external, more psychological than physical. I like to read into the words not so much a warning of concrete danger–who since Saint George has seen a dragon?–but as a notice of a certain sense of possibility, a realm of great promise among the tangled branches of the trees. Beyond this point, you don’t know what you’ll find: adventure, mystery, untold riches. Dragons.

There are dragons in the woods beyond my pond. This is not mere fancy; these are green dragons, wildflowers of the arum family, which includes jack-in-the-pulpit, wild calla, and arrow arum. They are untold riches, unexpected as diamonds on the ground, and I watched their development from sprout to oddly shaped leaf to even odder flower with a growing interest.

These green dragons–like gryphons, like unicorns–are comparatively rare (much more so than their cousin, the jack). They’re subtle, hidden from ordinary view by their choice of color; in the spring woods, flowers of camouflage green go unnoticed among drifts of bright yellow, lavender, red, and pink. These other plants–the mustards, the sweet williams, the roses–spend a fortune on advertising; the solitary green hood of the dragon hides beneath the understory, waiting private and self-contained for discovery.

The jack-in-the-pulpit is more showy. Its large spathe is faintly pitcher-shaped, with a protective flap that curves over the spadix. The spathe is often green, but sometimes striped with brownish-red or rich maroon. The pulpit image is unfamiliar to us, perhaps, now in these simpler times, but pulpits of 18th-century England and America did indeed resemble this unique shape, and the small “preacher Jack” inside. Skunk cabbage, another family member, makes quite sure you notice it, if not in its blooming then certainly in the foul scent that gives this spring flower its name. Even its Latin binomial makes reference to the odor: Symplocarpus foetidus. The fetid smell that rises from its spotted mature leaves is unmistakable. It’s hard to imagine missing it at any rate; skunk cabbage can grow from 1-3 feet tall.

A milder-mannered member of the Arum family is sweetflag, also called calamus. It lacks the spathe, and the golden spadix emerges from a leaf-like stem at an acute angle. It resembles iris in its growing pattern, and grows from one to 4 feet tall. The glossy yellowish green leaves set it apart from the familiar–and poisonous–blue flag, and it’s a good thing. Many people enjoy the spicy inner leaves of calamus in salad; its roots have long been preserved as a candied treat.

I don’t know why I recognized the tightly folded shoot of the green dragon as a relative of an old friend when I found them in my woods. Jack-in-the-pulpits have been vaguely magical to me as long as I can remember, but I don’t remember ever seeing one at ground-breaking stage. This blunt new sprout, its leaves wrapped around it like an umbrella, emerged rather like a mayapple, but it bore a family resemblance to the jack’s clan in the habit of growth, in the pattern of the veins on the leaves as they opened. Like the jack arum, the veins began as parallel lines taking off from the midrib. Then, as though changing their minds, they turned back before reaching the margin, joining with the next vein in a kind of interior scallop. When someone suggested it might be green dragon, the bells went off in my head, and I looked in my field guides for confirmation.

They weren’t much help. So far, all I had to go on were the leaves, which most wildflower books view as rather secondary. The photos were ambiguous at best. I’d have to wait for the main event to be sure of what I was seeing, but that was not that far in the offing, according to Edgar Denison’s Missouri Wildflowers; here they bloom from April to June. Now I found the dragon itself, a slender green shaft with a slightly larger swelling at the head, ending in a long, pointed unicorn’s horn – the “dragon’s tongue,” Audubon calls it, which may extend four to 8″ beyond its sheath. There was an opening along one side of the hood that showed the rest of that horn (the spadix) cloaked in the leaflike outer spathe. Tiny yellow male and female flowers concealed themselves within, clustered along the spadix– as secretive as the dragon itself. Perhaps that’s why I like them; this shy secretiveness, this mystery, appeals to something childlike in me. I know something that those who drive the road in their cars or bucket through the countryside on ATVs will never see; I’m in on the secret. I know that there are dragons in the woods, and the dragon slayers are not allowed trespass on my land.

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