March 16, 2010

HE WISDOM OF SOLOMON'S SEAL

— Solomon's seals have it all -- they are structural and big, have a great fragrance, grow in shady wooded conditions, and at least some of them are native. Most importantly, they have no pests or problems.

And the plant, with the botanical name Polygonatum, has a neat common name. According to a state of North Carolina Web site (ncnatural.com/wildflwr), when the stalk dies back and is removed from the rhizome, a scar remains that resembles the seal of King Solomon, which is essentially the Star of David.

The common native, Polygonatum commutatum or biflorum, is called smooth Solomon's seal or giant Solomon's seal. The plants grow about 4 feet tall, have yellowish-green bell-shaped flowers that form underneath the stalk, and produce blue-to-black berries in the fall.

''The variety we sell,'' said Deb Bedard of Springvale Nurseries, ''is variegated, Polygonatum 'Variegatum,' and is in the same lily family as all of them. The only difference is that the foliage has white around the edge.

''Like the common one, it is hardy to Zone 3 (which includes even Aroostook County) and is basically trouble-free, pest-free and disease-free. It grows 1.5 to 3 feet tall, has a beautiful white flower, and it does attract hummingbirds.''

Dwarf Solomon's seal, sometimes called dwarf Japanese Solomon's seal with the botanical name Polygonatum humile, is an excellent shade-loving ground cover. It grows only about 8 inches tall, will get to be 18 inches wide, and spreads over time.

It likes a woodsy soil and good moisture but will stand up quite well to drought. The one disadvantage is that it is not as hardy as the larger Solomon's seals. Some catalogs list it as Zone 4, which includes most of Maine, and some as Zone 5, which is just coastal Maine.

But if you are looking for a woodland ground cover in the lily family and are worried about the hardiness of dwarf Solomon's seal, you can go with lily of the valley.

''Lily of the valley is shorter and more aggressive,'' Bedard said. ''It has a tiny white bell flower and a red berry instead of the black on Solomon's seal. Lily of the valley will quickly carpet a wooded area.''

Our daughter has been planting lilies of the valley at her South Portland home since she bought it in 1998, and has a good patch of the flowers. She likes the version with pink flowers, but the pink ones do not spread as aggressively as the white ones.

You can plant a number of different plants with your Solomon's seal to create a good woodland garden. Start with Polemonium, or Jacob's ladder.

''Polemonium reptans is the native one,'' Bedard said. ''It has variegated leaves and is low spreading.''

Polemonium reptans ''Stairway to Heaven'' was introduced by the New England Wild Flower Society in 2003 and has excellent blue flowers (in spring) that go with the variegated foliage.

Bedard also recommended tiarella (foam flower), heuchera (coral bells) and heucherella (foamy bells) for the woodland garden, in addition to a lot of ferns, including maidenhair fern, which is small and wispy; lady's fern, which is large and architectural; and Japanese painted fern.

She also recommended forget-me-not, or Myosotis, which has a wonderful blue color and can be striking. It has turned up on some lists of invasive plants, but Bedard said she would still use it.

''They are shallow-rooted and easy to remove, and they are just so pretty,'' she said. ''We aren't talking barberry here.''

Tom Atwell can be contacted at 791-6362 or at:

tatwell@pressherald.com

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