In the Glen: Solomon’s Seal, True or False?

Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum) blooms in the Glen beginning in mid-May. [Photo by a blind flaneur]
Updated 030210: False Solomon’s Seal (Smilacina racemosa) blooms in the Glen beginning in mid-May. [Photo by a blind flaneur]

As a kid I learned to distinguish two flowers called Solomon’s seal, one identified as “True” and the other “False.” The flower perched above the leaves in the first, and below them in the second. The fruit of at least one of them was edible. I ate them, at any rate, and I didn’t get sick or see visions of Euell Gibbons.

Like most botanical knowledge acquired in my childhood, I feel certain of its identity when I’m in the woods, then begin to have doubts when I look it up at home. Wikipedia tells me there are more than 50 species in the genus Polygonatum. I wonder now whether this is one of them. I haven’t consulted my mother’s field guide to wildflowers, the reference I know the best.

I found these flowers in almost the same spot where I saw a trillium and startled an osprey earlier in the spring. There must be some enchantment here that guides my attention.

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4 Responses to In the Glen: Solomon’s Seal, True or False?

  1. Mark Willis says:

    Botanical.com provides this description of a European species, Polygonatum multiflorum (ALLEM.). I love its linguistic precision:

    The creeping root-stock, or underground stem, is thick and white, twisted and full of knots, with circular scars at intervals, left by the leaf stems of previous years. It throws up stems that attain a height of from 18 inches to 2 feet, or even more, which are for some considerable portion of their length erect, but finally bend gracefully over. They are round, pale-green in colour, and bare half-way up; from thence to the top, large and broadly-oval leaves grow alternately on the stem, practically clasping it by the bases. All the leaves have the character of turning one way, being bent slightly upward, as well as to one side, and have very marked longitudinal ribbing on their surfaces.

    The flowers are in little drooping clusters of from two to seven, springing from the axils of the leaves, but hanging in an opposite direction to the foliage. They are tubular in shape, of a creamy or waxy white, topped with a yellowish-green, and sweet-scented, and are succeeded by small berries about the size of a pea, of a blackish-blue colour, varying to purple and red, and containing about three or four seeds.

    The generic name Polygonatum signifies many-angled, and is supposed to be derived either from the numerous knots or swellings of the root or from the numerous nodes or joints of the stem, but the characteristics are not very marked ones. The specific name, multiflorum, serves to distinguish this manyflowered species from another in which the blossoms are solitary, or only in pairs from each axil.

    The origin of the common English name of the plant is variously given. Dr. Prior tells us it comes from ‘the flat, round scars on the rootstocks, resembling the impressions of a seal and called Solomon’s, because his seal occurs in Oriental tales.’

    Another explanation is that these round depressions, or the characters which appear when the root is cut transversely, and which somewhat resemble Hebrew characters, gave rise to the notion that Solomon ‘who knew the diversities of plants and the virtues of roots,’ has set his seal upon them in testimony of its value to man as a medicinal root.

    Gerard maintained that the name Sigillum Solomons was given to the root partly because it bears marks something like the stamp of a seal, but still more because of the virtue the root hath in sealing and healing up green wounds, broken bones and such like, being stamp’t and laid thereon.’

    The name Lady’s Seal was also conferred on the plant by old writers, as also St. Mary’s Seal (Sigillum Sanctae Mariae).

  2. Mark Willis says:

    Well, I’m really having doubts now. Here is how Illinois Wildflowers describes a species native to eastern North America, Polygonatum commutatum:

    This native perennial plant is about 2-3′ tall and unbranched. The central stem is glabrous, glaucous, and round in circumference; it leans over to one side. The alternate leaves are up to 6″ long and 4″ across; they are spaced fairly close together along the stem. These leaves are ovate and glabrous; they have parallel veins and clasp the stem.

    From the upper axils of the middle and upper leaves, there are nodding umbels of 1-5 flowers (rarely more than this). A typical plant will have 12-20 of these umbels, which hang below the leaves. The peduncle and pedicels of each umbel are slender and green. The flowers are whitish green or pale yellowish green and about 2/3–3/4″ in length. Each flower has a narrow tubular shape with 6 small lobes that are slightly recurved. Within the interior of this flower, there is a pistil with a single style and 6 stamens. The blooming period occurs during late spring or early summer and lasts about 3 weeks. Each flower is replaced by a spheroid berry that is about 1/3–1/2″ across. This berry is initially green, but it eventually becomes dark blue-violet. The root system produces rhizomes that are rather stout and knobby; on the upper surface of these rhizomes, there are circular scars. This plant often forms colonies.

  3. You’ve brought a touch of Spring to yet another cold, snowy day in the mountains of N.C. Your photo shows False Solomon’s-Seal, Smilacina racemosa. It bears its flowers, spirea-like and creamy-white, in terminal clusters. The true Solomon’s-seals, Polygonatum biflorum, have their flowers in the leaf axils. The flowers are paired, greenish-yellow, and dangle beneath the leaves like little fairy bells. Both plants are native here. There’s also a colony of the Great Solomon’s-Seal, Polygonatum canaliculatum, which grow very tall. Deer have eaten them the past few years before they’ve had a chance to grow much.

    Polygonatum commutatum, which you mention,or smooth Solomon’s Seal, is a var. of Polygonatum biflorum. I don’t know enough to elaborate on that.

    Happy can’t-come-too-soon Spring!

  4. Mark Willis says:

    Thanks for setting me straight, Betty. We are ten weeks away from Solomon’s seal here, and the ice and snow makes it feel even more distant. The most promising sign of spring I have is the cry of red-tailed hawks every morning. I hope they will nest here again this year.

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