If you’ve read any of my past rants, you know that I favor scientific botanical nomenclature over common names. This has caused many readers to think of me as a snob or a know-it-all. This is not the case!
But, I’ll save the “plant name” discussion for a later date. Just wanted to let you know that I have no problem with common names, however, they often don’t tell you anything about the plant or don’t seem to make sense.
Here is a definitive exception to this rule—Polygonatum canaliculatum, aka “Giant Solomon’s Seal”. It is a remarkable plant native to all but eight western states of the United States, and it East a giant in more ways than its size.
If you’re unfamiliar with this plant native to West Virginia, I bet you know its “little” cousin, Polygonatum biflorum, the “true seal of Solomon”, which is also indigenous. Its common name distinguishes it from Maianthemum racemosumPreviously Smilacina racemosa, aka “False Seal of Solomon”. (I don’t like that common name either, so if you must use a common name, try “Solomon’s Plume”.)
Polygonatum is a genus of plants that struggles with family relationships. I have always known it as a member of the Liliaceae (lily) family. Now, depending on who you talk to, it could be in the Convallariaceae (Lily of the Valley) family or in the Asparagaceae (Asparagus) family.
But back to Polygonatum canaliculatum and talk about the differences between these two parents. Typically, Polygonatum biflorum (biflorum as it produces two flowers in each axil) grows approximately 12 to 36 inches, depending on age, soil fertility, humidity, and other factors. It blooms delightfully from May to June with a graceful, arching stem. On the underside of the stems, in most axils, a pair of greenish-white, pendulous, bell-shaped flowers are produced. These develop into blue-black berries during the growing season.
Polygonatum canaliculatum is quite similar in many ways, but looks like Polygonatum biflorum on steroids! It typically grows along roadsides and normally measures 36-72 inches, but we’ve had some at Sunshine Farm & Gardens that reach heights of over 96 inches. There are also 2 to 10 flowers in each armpit compared to only 2 Polygonatum biflorum.
Both plants are easy to grow and propagate. The rhizomes produce a new joint every year, and if you dig them up every few years, you can multiply them effortlessly. You can also grow them easily from seed: just wash the pulp under running water and sow them outdoors in pots. It takes several years to raise a mature plant from seed.
The genus name Polygonatum breaks down as follows—Poly means a lot, and gonu stands for knee joint, a reference to the joints of the rhizome. The common name “Solomon’s seal” is generally thought to refer to the knee joints on the rhizome, but some older writings indicate that the seal refers to the wound-sealing properties of the rhizome. The specific epithet “canaliculatum” means grooved or channeled in reference to the grooves on the leaves.
The starchy, edible rhizomes were eaten by Native Americans who shared them with early settlers. Members of this genus have a multitude of other medicinal uses and have been used in the treatment of indigestion, heavy menstruation, lung conditions and general debility. It is a popular remedy for hemorrhoids, rheumatism and skin irritations when a poultice or decoction of fresh roots is applied to cuts, bruises, wounds, etc.
In the garden, it’s a welcome guest, and there are plenty of shade-loving plants you can plant under or around it. I even planted Polygonatum biflorum under the Polygonatum canaliculatum. The richer the soil and the more organic matter and moisture, the more vigorously they will grow. They have a place in every shade garden, native plant garden, and wilderness garden, and I’ve even seen them used successfully in rain gardens. Just use your imagination to capitalize on this graceful giant.
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