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Gardening Articles: Flowers :: Perennials

Solomon's Seal

by Dorothy J. Pellett

Increasingly, gardeners are recognizing the historical and ecological appeal of native plants. Many growers want their landscapes to include what originally grew in their regions. One of my favorite natives for landscaping is the versatile Solomon's seal (Polygonatum). Equally at home in wildflower preserves, shade gardens, and perennial borders, Solomon's seal is easy to grow and valuable for its arching stems with smooth foliage. The flowers aren't showy, but in May (where I live), the small, greenish white, pendulous blossoms, followed several weeks later by dark blue berries, add to the subtle charm of this graceful plant. Though some species are native to Europe, Korea, and Japan, many are native to North America.

The tallest species, great Solomon's seal (P. biflorum commutatum, or alternately P. commutatum), appears surprisingly elegant in its natural woodland habitat, most midwestern and eastern states as far south as Louisiana to Georgia. Where leaf mold is deep and moisture is sufficient, stems will grow toward the light in 5-foot arches. In such locations, one plant may spread several feet across, so choose neighboring plants that will be in scale. It's hardy throughout USDA Hardiness Zones 3 through 9.

Other species are more modest in size but retain the same graceful form. Small Solomon's seal (P. biflorum) grows 20 to 30 inches tall. It naturally grows over a similar range as great Solomon's seal, and according to Miriam Patton, a naturalist in northwest Iowa, it is still common in deciduous woodlands throughout the state. Although small Solomon's seal is just as cold-hardy (through zone 3) as its larger cousin, it is somewhat less heat-tolerant, so it's only recommended through zone 8.

Two useful Asiatic species are P. humile and the variegated Solomon's seal, P. odoratum 'Variegatum' (alternately P. o. thunbergii 'Variegatum'). The former grows only 6 to 9 inches tall, making it a useful ground cover in shade. It is hardy from zones 4 through 9. Variegated Solomon's seal has creamy white leaf edges and dark maroon stems. This native of Japan is grown in gardens throughout this country.

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