True and false

Two similar and frequently confused plants are gracing my shade gardens right now: Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum) and false Solomon’s seal, sometimes called Solomon’s plume (Smilacina racemosa). You can see right away why Latin plant names really are less confusing than common names, right?


Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum)


Solomon’s plume (Smilacina racemosa). Notice the flower bud peeking out at the tip of the plant.

Notice how similar the form of the two plants is. The flowers and fruit are totally different, but the size and shape, bloom time, and preferred site are all the same. Both are about 18″ to 2′ tall, bloom in May, and fruit in late summer. They belong to the same plant family, the Asperagaceae (asparagus family). You’ll frequently see the two together in natural areas, and when they first emerge they can be hard to tell apart. Both spread by rhizomes. Both are shade plants that do best in damp, rich soil; although both do well in my dry, sandy soil, I suspect they would spread more quickly in richer soil.

The dangling white flowers of Solomon’s seal will turn into blue berries in late summer. The white plumy flowers of false Solomon’s seal will turn into clusters of bright red berries that the birds will eat the second they ripen. Here’s a closeup of the Solomon’s seal flowers and a not-very-good picture of false Solomon seal fruit.


Solomon’s seal: flowers


False Solomon’s seal–almost-ripe fruit in mid-September when the shade asters bloom.

Both of these plants are relatively easy to find, as native plants go, meaning they are not that easy to find. Avoid the commonly available Polygonatum odoratum, Japanese Solomon’s seal. Many garden centers and plant catalogs sell that, calling it simply variegated or fragrant Solomon’s seal. It is not a native plant. It’s worth seeking out the real thing! Remember to always check the name of the species.

These two species are excellent choices for almost any shady spot. If your soil is moist, combine them with appropriate ferns, Virginia bluebells,  jack-on-the-pulpit, golden alexanders, mistflower, even trilliums. If the soil is dry, try different ferns, mayapple, native geraniums, meadowrue, shade-loving asters. But do try them!


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