There were strange scrape marks on the ground in the woods behind the house. They seemed too deep to be typical turkey scratching. These digs went through the leaf litter, an inch or two into the soil. What critter made these diggings I wondered? Then I noticed a slender green stem topped by three leaflets lying beside each of the holes. I recognized the plant, and when I noticed at the base of the stem the root was missing, it all came clear. I remembered the first time I saw this phenomenon.
It was many years ago when I was out “‘sengin'” with my two older mountaineer buddies, Theron and Lee. All three of us were traversing a steep, forested mountain slope. We had been slowly walking along scanning the thick growth of understory plants searching for the telltale red berries or yellowish leaves of a coveted ginseng plant. We had spaced ourselves about 20 or 30 yards apart as we walked across the slope. Theron was up the highest on the slope. I was the lowest, and Lee was between us.
We had not been finding much ginseng when I came upon a large fallen log that had been broken apart. All around it there were rocks that had been overturned. There was a distinct trail leading off that was marked by beaten down plants, overturned rocks and recently disturbed dirt. This was the fresh trail of a foraging bear.
I forgot about ginseng. I wanted to see what that bear had been doing. I saw some fresh dirt where it had dug a hole. I looked in the hole and saw the remains of the papery walls of a yellowjackets’ nest. The bear had dug up and eaten an entire colony of yellowjackets. I was glad the bear had gotten there first. If I had stumbled into the nest, those yellowjackets might have devoured me!
I could see places where the bear had been digging roots. As near as I could tell, the trail seemed fresh. I hollered up the mountain to my companions. I told them that I had found fresh bear sign and that they ought to come down and look. They were hunting ginseng. They were quite a ways up the slope and didn’t want to come all the way down to look at bear sign. So I followed along further.
Because of the thick growth of herbaceous plants that had been trampled, the bear’s trail was quite clear and easy to follow. The bear had been feeding; turning over rocks in search of insects and digging up roots as it traveled. I looked more carefully at the holes where it had been rooting and found the tops of Jack-in-the-pulpit lying beside the hole with the bulbous corm (the root) bitten off. Could it be that this bear was eating Jack-in-the Pulpit? I followed on. Yes, there were more holes with more tops with the roots bitten off. This was amazing. Jack-in-the-pulpit, sometimes known as “Indian turnip”, has an incredibly fiery, irritating taste. In fact it is a favorite trick of mean-spirited country pranksters to try to get some naive person to taste it. Like many other members of the arum family the plant contains calcium oxalate crystals. When you first put it in your mouth it tastes mild and pleasant – until the calcium oxalate crystals imbed in your mucous membranes and act as an irritant not only chemically, but mechanically as well. To me, the sensation is like slivers of hot broken glass in the throat – not a fun prank at all.
Apparently this bear was not bothered by the calcium oxalate because it had eaten one Jack-in-the-pulpit root after another. Jack-in-the-pulpit root was its major plant food that day. (Since that time I have seen several other instances were a bear had been eating Jack-in-the-pulpit in upstate New York. On another occasion in early July in central West Virginia I witnessed a bear feeding on the fruits of skunk cabbage, another calcium oxalate containing member of the Arum family)
The bear’s trail turned up hill and I followed. Soon I met Lee and Theron. I was excited. I was finally going to be able to show them what this bear had been doing. I pointed out the trail and showed them the top of a Jack-in-the-pulpit with the root chewed off. They both studied it. Finally Lee said, “That ain’t no bear been through here digging them Indian turnips. H’it was somebody.”
“It was a bear,” I protested. “People don’t dig Indian turnip roots.”
“Yeah, they sell them.”
“Naw, it was a bear,” I protested. “I saw where he busted up a log down there.”
“Maybe down there,” Lee said. “But up here, this is where somebody’s been digging roots. That’s probably why we ain’t finding any ginseng.”
“Let’s just follow along here for a while,” I suggested, “Maybe we can figure this out.”
The three of us followed the trail and found more uprooted Jack-in-the-pulpits. Then right beside one of the uprooted Jacks was a large ginseng plant with red berries.
“Now there ain’t nobody who’s digging Indian turnip to sell that’s gonna pass up a ginseng with red berries.” I said triumphantly.
“Well, what about that,” Lee said.
We followed that bear’s trail around the ridge. On the other side, we found a place where it had dug up several Jacks. The tops lay there on the ground; the leaves were not even wilted, a number of the roots had been bitten off. There was one that had been started and but it had been dropped, unfinished. From that point the trail seemed to dwindle and disappear.
It wasn’t till later that we realized that the bear had been prowling the slope hunting roots just like we were. It was just ahead of us and when it heard us arguing, it dropped the root it was eating and slipped away.
After that day in the woods, I wood-burned a drawing of a woodland scene on a shelf mushroom. I drew a bear and a Jack-in-the-pulpit and three tiny human figures up on the ridge in the background. I gave it to Theron for a Christmas present.
He looked at the scene I drew and said, “Well that’s about the way it was, wasn’t it. That ole bear was around the ridge thar, eatin’ them Indian turnips and just a listenin’ to us argue about whether it was a bear or not.”
Okay, you plant geeks; did you notice those two young ginseng plants in the top photo? (They’re above the fallen Jack-in-the-pulpit-leaf.)
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