Most plant species have their flowers located above the leaves or in places where they can be easily pollinated by the wind or by the Insects (Class Insecta). One plant species has its flowers located in an inconspicuous site below the leaves. That species is the Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum biflorum [Walter] Elliott).
Solomon’s Seal is a member of the Order Asparagales, the Family Asparagaceae, and the Subfamily Nolinoideae. Many references place it in the Order Liliales, the Family Liliaceae, the Family Ruscaceae, or the Family Convallariaceae.
The generic name, Polygonatum, is Greek for “many joints or knees”, referring to its knobby rootstock. Poly is “many” and gonatum, gonun, gonu, or gony is “joints” or “knees”. The specific epithet, biflorum, is Latin for “two flowers”.
Previous scientific synonyms for this plant were Convallaria angustifolia (Pursh) Poiret, C. biflora Walter, C. commutata J.A. Schultes & J.H. Schultes, Polygonatum angustifolium Pursh, P. canaliculatum (Willdenow) Pursh, P. cobrense (Wooton & Standley) R.R. Gates, P. commutatum (J.A. Schultes & J.H. Schultes) A. Dietrich, P. ellipticum Farwell, P. giganteum A. Dietrich, P. herbetifolium (R.R. Gates) Bush, P. latifolium Pursh nomen illegitimum, P. melleum Farwell, P. ovatum (Farwell) Bush, P. parviflorum A. Dietrich, P. virginicum Greene, Salomonia biflora (Walter) Britton, S. cobrensis Wooton & Standley, S. commutata (J.A. Schultes & J.H. Schultes) Britton, S. commutatum (J.H. Schultes), Sigillaria angustifolium (Pursh) Rafinesque, S. canaliculata (Willdenow) Rafinesque), and S. elliptica Rafinesque. Many of these names were of other species that have now been re-classified as subspecies.
The common name, Solomon’s Seal, was possibly named for the flat, circular scars upon the rootstock. These scars may resemble stamped wax envelope seals or the seal of King Solomon, the 10th century B.C. King of Israel. It may have also been so named because the roots were used to treat or “seal” wounds or broken bones. Because of that, Solomon was thought to be a magician. It was also named because the flower, if dipped in ink and pressed against paper, would leave a mark resembling the 6-pointed Star of David.
At different time and places, other common names for this species are American Solomon’s Seal, Conquer John, Drop Berry, Giant Solomon’s Seal, Great Solomon’s Seal, John-the-Conqueror Root, King Solomon’s Seal, Lady’s Seal, Lesser Solomon’s Seal, Lily-of-the-Valley Vine, St. Mary’s Seal, Sealroot, Sealwort, Smooth Solomon’s Seal, and Wild Lily-of-the-Valley.
DESCRIPTION OF THE SOLOMON’S SEAL
Height: Its height is 8-72 inches. Larger plants may have double the number of chromosomes as the smaller plants.
Stem: Its stem is single, stout, erect or arching, slightly zigzag, smooth, and unbranched. It is leafy upon the top. The stem is also shiny, waxy, and has a rounded cross-section. All plants within a single group may arch in the same direction.
Leaves: Its leaves are simple and alternate. These leaves cover the entire length of the stem and are spaced closely together. Each leaf is broadly lanceolate, elliptic, or ovate; about 1½-7 inches long and about 2-3½ inches wide; smooth; light green, and hairless above and pale downy below; and sessile or short-petioled. Its margin is smooth and wavy. These leaves clasp the stem. Its veins are linear and parallel with 1 or more strong veins upon each side of the midrib. White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus Zimmermann) may eat the foliage. They turn a bright golden yellow in the fall. These leaves fall before the fruits ripen.
Flowers: Its flowers are white to greenish-yellow, tubular, bell-shaped, and about ½-1 inches long. They are dangling or drooping below the stem at the leaf axils and are arranged singly or in non-terminal umbelled clusters of up to 10. Each flower is radially symmetrical; has 6 tepals that are joined to form a tube with 6 short, spreading, recurved lobes; 6 stamens; and 1 pistil with 1 style. The style is shorter than the anthers, which prevents self-pollination. All flowering parts are attached at the base of the ovary. These flowers are pollinated by Bumblebees (Genus Bombus) and by Ruby-throated Hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris L.). Their blooming period lasts about 3 weeks. Flowing season is April to July.
Fruits: Its fruits are rounded berries. They are about ¼-½ inches in diameter, and are initially green but later become dark blue-purple to black. Each berry is 3-chambered with 1-2 seeds per chamber. The seeds are roundish and pale brown. Birds (Class Aves) and Mammals (Class Mammalia) eat these fruits and spread the seeds.
Roots: Its root system consists of thick, stout, fleshy, creeping, deep, horizontal, whitish, jointed or knotty rhizomes. They have their scars upon the upper surface. A new scar is added every year. They also have fibrous rootlets. Some Mammal species eat these rootstocks.
Habitat: Its habitats consist of dry to moist woods, thickets, fields, prairies, swamps, roadsides, and old homesteads. They prefer acidic soils. Although Solomon’s Seals are found in clumps, they are not found in large colonies.
Range: Its range is most of the eastern U.S. and Canada as far west as the Rocky Mountains.
Although all parts of the plant are considered toxic, Solomon’s Seal had many uses. Both the Native Americans and the early European settlers used this plant.
Solomon’s Seal has edible uses. The rootstalks are starchy like potatoes. The rootstocks can be dried, ground into flour, and used in making bread. These rootstocks are starchy and can be boiled and eaten like potatoes or added to soups. Because the rootstocks contain tannin and calcium oxalate crystals, they should be boiled for at least 20 minutes before eating. The young shoots, before the bitter-tasting leaves unfurl, are also edible. They can be eaten raw or boiled for 10-15 minutes like asparagus. Both the rootstocks and the young shoots should be peeled before cooking. Even the flowers are edible. They can be eaten steamed or raw.
Solomon’s Seal has medicinal uses. Its roots are used as a decoction, an infusion, a poultice, a tea, and a wash. It was used an anti-inflammatory, an astringent, a demulcent, a diaphoretic, a diuretic, an expectorant, a sedative, and a tonic. It was used for threating arthritis, bruises, coughs, cuts, dysentery, female disorders, gout, headaches, heart problems, hemorrhoids, indigestion, kidney ailments, lung ailments, poison ivy rashes, rheumatism, skin irritations, and sores. These roots contain asparagin, convallarin, mucilage, saponins, and tannin.
The berry fruits are mildly toxic and should not be consumed. They contain the glycoside anthraquinone, which is a purgative. They can also cause cardiac disorders, hemolysis, and hypoglycemia.
The rootstocks had other uses as well. In parts of the Deep South, the slaves used the rootstocks in voodoo rituals. The rootstocks can be burned within a house for a pleasant incense-like fragrance.
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