University of Vermont
Department of Plant and Soil Science
PERENNIAL PLANT FEATURE:
Dr. Leonard Perry, Horticulture Professor
University of Vermont
The Solomon’s Seal is a low maintenance, long-lived, hardy perennial
well-adapted to shady sites. It has attractive flowers early in the
season, no significant problems, and several variations. Perennial
professionals think highly of it, having voted it the 2013 Perennial Plant
of the Year of the Perennial Plant Association.
The plant spreads slowly by underground jointed stems or “rhizomes”.
The genus name (Polygonatum) refers to these, coming from the Greek
words for many and knee joints. Flowers have a slight lily-like
fragrance, which is referred to in the species name (odoratum).
The common name has several possible meanings, a common one from scars on
the roots said to resemble the seal of ancient Hebrew King Solomon. It
is currently in the Asparagaceae or Asparagus family, having evolved through
3 former families as botanists reorganized them.
Most commonly found and used is the variegated Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum
odoratum var. pluriflorum), the cultivar being ‘Variegatum’.
While the species has dull green leaves off of the arching stems, 2 feet or
so high, this variegated one has narrow white bands along leaf edges.
Leaves are lance-shaped, alternate up the stems, and turn yellow in
fall. New stems have shades of dark red. Stems and the
variegated leaves are attractive in arrangements.
The variegated leaves are echoed by the white, tubular or bell-shaped
flowers (just under an inch long) that hang from the stems from where each
leaf joins the stem (leaf axils). They’re either single or in pairs.
These appear in April in warmer climates, May in the north. On the
species, these flowers have green tips. Flowers are followed in fall
by blue-black berries about one-quarter inch wide which, too, hang down from
leaf axils. Flowers are self-fertile, having both male and female
parts, and are pollinated by bees.
The species is native to temperate regions of Asia and Europe, and can be
found growing on shady slopes and in woodlands. The common variety is
native to Asia, the name meaning “many flowered”. Plants grow best is
soils found in native habitats, being moist and with lots of humus or
organic matter. If you don’t have this, add plenty of peat moss or
compost prior to planting.
Plants will tolerate less than ideal conditions and, once established, even
tolerate some drought. This makes them a good candidate for rain
gardens. In the north, they may perform fine in full sun if sufficient
Good companion plants are ferns, hostas, coralbells, foamflowers,
barrenworts, wood aster, and variegated Siberian bugloss. If you need to
move or divide them, this is best done in spring as they emerge, or early
fall. Replant roots just below the soil surface.
While this plant has no pest or disease problems, and isn’t bothered by deer
or rabbits, particularly the young shoots may be nibbled by slugs or
snails. It shouldn’t be nibbled by humans, as small amounts of saponin
and convallamarin (a cardiac glycoside) chemicals in the plant may cause
gastric distress. Yet it has been used in traditional Chinese and Korean
medicine for centuries, and in Korea a tea is made from the roots. The
Handbook of Medicinal Herbs lists about a dozen medicinal uses.
You may find a number of cultivars of the common species (odoratum)
from specialty nurseries and online. ‘Goldilocks’ has whitish
streaking through the leaves. ‘Angel Wing’ has very wide white margins
on leaves. ‘Byakko’ has white splotches near the leaf bases. ‘Double
Stuff’ has margins about double the width of the regular variegated
cultivar. ‘Koryu’ has mainly green leaves with a raised ridge down the
center. ‘Spiral Staircase’ is a recent introduction from Korea with
larger leaves and slightly twisted stems.
A related species (multiflorum) is similar to the common species (odoratum), only grows to about 3 feet
high. A hybrid of these two won the RHS Award of Garden Merit in
Britain. A dwarf species (humile) only gets 6 to 9 inches
high. A Chinese introduction (macropodum), the Big-footed
Solomon’s Seal, has plain green leaves, lots of flowers, and grows to 3-feet
high. A Japanese species (falcatum) is often misapplied to the
common variegated species already described. A couple cultivars of it
that you may find include ‘Tiger Stripes’ with creamy veins, and ‘Silver
Lining’ with a dramatic white central stripe.
The smooth Solomon’s seal (biflorum) is native to eastern and central
North America. Early Americans used its starchy roots as a potato-like
food. A variety of this native species (commutatum) may reach 7
feet tall. The native Hairy Solomon’s Seal (pubescens) is
similar to the smooth, only with minute hairs on veins under the leaves.
If you’re a more experienced perennial grower or collector, consider one or
more of these choice cultivars or different species. If you’re a
beginning gardener, or just want some color in the shade garden with little
care needed, consider adding several plants of the common variegated
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