Solomon's Seals are plants with arching un-branched stems with flowers and eventually fruit hanging beneath the leaves. Stems: The "Great (or Smooth) Solomon's Seal", var commutatum, in mature plants can have arching stems up to 6 feet long and 2 to 3 feet high; var biflorum will generally be much smaller although large var. biflorum specimens are found.
The alternate leaves are stalkless and usually clasping the stem on var. commutatum; in var. biflorum the leaves touch the stem. Leaves on the larger plant can be 6 inches long and 4 inches wide although large var. biflorum specimens are found. Surfaces are smooth, free of hair, and margins are without teeth or lobes.
The inflorescence has flowers in stalked clusters (umbels) hanging downward along the stem on a thin green peduncle from the leaf axil, and each flower on its own thin pedicle. The upper most leaf axils and the very lower ones will not have flowers.
Flowers are greenish-white, 6-part, tubular shaped. Flowers can range from 2 to 10 per umbel depending on the age of the plant, with as many as 20 umbels. The flower tube lobes are tepals (replacing separate sepals and petals) united together except at the apex where each lobe re-curves slightly to open the tube exposing inside 6 stamens, with yellow anthers, and one style. The anthers are held against the style until they enlarge to shed pollen. The ovary is green, ovoid, and noticeably composed of 3 locules. The color of the tepals is white to greenish-yellow.
Fruit: The fruit becomes a 1/4 inch or larger, dark blue to black berry which birds love. The seeds require a long period of stratification for germination - a cold moist period followed by a warm moist period, followed by another cold moist period. Sowed outside, they will not germinate until the 2nd year.
Varieties: The Garden has both varieties listed on the plant census. Most references will group them together and describe as above. Some authorities, such as Flora of North America (Ref. #W7), are not so sure there is enough difference to separate the species into varieties. See also Eloise Butler's notes below.
Habitat: Solomon's Seals grow from a long, knotty rhizome, preferring moist soil and light shade to partial sun. The rhizomes will propagate new plants. Squirrels will dig out the newly planted root-stock, so protect it.
Names: The genus Polygonatum is from the Greek name for the plant - polygonon, which is derived from two words - polus, meaning 'many' and gony, meaning 'the knee joint', together - 'many knees' and refers to the rhizome as Eloise Butler explains below. The species name biflorum, means 'twin-flowered', referring to the minimum number of flowers that will be found per leaf axil on younger plants. An older name from this species is Polygonatum canaliculatum .
The author names for the plant classification are as follows: 'Walter' refers to Thomas Walter (1740-1789) British born American botanist, best known for his 1788 catalogue of plants of South Carolina, Flora Caroliniana. His work was amended by ‘Elliot’ who was Stephen Elliot (1771-1830) American botanist and collector whose herbarium was the largest in America at the time. He is noted for A Sketch of the Botany of South Carolina and Georgia.
Recent work by the Angiosperm Phylogeny Group (APG III classification system) has suggested removing this genus from the Liliaceae family and placed it in the Asparagaceae, subfamily Nolinoideae. That subfamily name is a replacement for the Ruscaceae family.
Comparisons: A very similar looking plant in our area is Hairy Solomon's Seal, P. pubescens, where the stems and leaves have hair. The False Solomon's Seal, Maianthemum racemosum, has the inflorescence at the tip of the stem, not in the leaf axils.
Above: 1st photo - Note the arching stems and the distinctive stalked flower clusters. 2nd photo - Two weeks after flowering, the fruit (1/4 inch berry) is forming.
Below: 1st photo - The 6 tepals of the flower tube are united except where they reflex backward at the apex. Note how the leaf clasps the stem. 2nd photo - The leaf of Great Solomon's Seal clasping the stem.
Below: The tepals form a long tube. Inside is the central single greenish-white style surrounded by 6 stamens that have yellow anthers.
Below: 1st photo - The green ovary is ovoid and noticeably composed of 3 locules. 2nd photo - The stamens are initially tight against the style and then separate as the anthers enlarge (photo above).
Below: 1st photo - Developing berries in early August. 2nd photo - Fully ripened berries in late September
Below: The long knotty root with its round segmentations which are the scars of previous stem stalks.
Below: A group of plants in May with flowers just forming.
Notes: Great Solomon's Seal is indigenous to the Garden area. Eloise Butler catalogued it on May 31, 1907. She planted it in 1921 and '23. Martha Crone planted some in 1945, '46, and '47 and listed the plant on her 1951 Garden census as P. canaliculatum, which now is recognized as Polygonatum biflorum (Walter) Elliott var. commutatum. Susan Wilkins added plants in 2012 and 2013. Great Solomon's Seal is native to Minnesota and found mostly in the southern half. In North America the range is east of the Rocky Mountain chain. Only two species of Polygonatum are found in Minnesota: P. biflorum and P. pubescens, the Hairy Solomon's Seal.
Eloise Butler wrote: "Why called Solomon’s seal, do you ask? Burrowing in the earth will disclose a fleshy underground stem scarred at interval with rounded, shallow pits that have been likened to a seals - a seal for each annual aerial stalk. “Venerable is Solomon” you will exclaim, if you attempt to trace their number." Published June 4, 1911, Sunday Minneapolis Tribune
Medicinal Lore: The dry powdered root is reported to have been used for various afflictions. Hutchins (Ref. #12) mentions inflammations and ruptures. Densmore (Ref. #5) lists a decoction of the root sprinkled on hot stones and inhaled to treat headache.
References: Plant characteristics are generally from sources 1A, 32, W2, W3, W7 & W8 plus others as specifically applied. Distribution principally from W1, W2 and 28C. Planting history generally from 1, 4 & 4a. Other sources by specific reference. See Reference List for details.
Identification booklet for most of the flowering forbs and small flowering shrubs of the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden. Details Here.
Friends of the Wild Flower Garden, Inc. Text and photos are by G. D. Bebeau unless otherwise credited. "www.friendsofthewildflowergarden.org"