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Nature Notebook – Jack-in-the-Pulpit

Looking like an obnoxiously early Christmas decoration, the bright red berries of Jack-in-the-Pulpit beckon to birds and other hungry animals.

However, Jacks belong to a group of plants that contain toxins within their plant parts to prevent animal browsing. The calcium oxalate produces needle-like crystals. These needles are especially harmful to the tender mucous membranes of mammals. The crystals cut the flesh and the toxin easily poison the tissues.

The unlikely consumer experiences a profound burning sensation which can then progress to convulsions. There are tales of children, unable to receive medical aid, dying from eating the berries. It is unlikely that any small mammal that may consider the Jack’s berries to be a possible meal, will ever try them again if it survives that first taste.

Biologists believe that ring-necked pheasants, wood thrushes and, maybe, wild turkeys may safely ingest the berries. Perhaps a bird’s “swallow-without-chewing” technique bypasses the danger of the crystals.