May’s Flowering Fairy Bells
“Set me as a seal upon thy heart” – Song of Solomon
One bright Southern day I was blessed with a field trip to Super H Mart, an Asian market near Atlanta, Georgia, courtesy of my friend and herbal mentor, Patricia Kyritsi Howell. Wow. Never in my life have I experienced anything like this. The farmer’s market section alone would have been enough, let alone getting lost in extensive rows of medicinal herbs, exotic foods and abundant varieties of seaweeds and fungus. And on top of that: a fish market and food court. I would have needed a whole day, no a week, to take in this place: the epitome of culture shock for this mountain girl. The “H” in H Mart by the way is short for Han Ah Reum, meaning “One Arm Full of Groceries.”
Luckily, I was on a budget. So the one-arm-full-of-grocery finds that I brought home, while exotic, was not anywhere near as expensive as it could have been had it been purchased from my local health food store or online. One of those finds was dried polygonatum from China. Polygonatum is a genus that contains approximately 50 species of flowering plants known as Solomon’s Seal, a common plant in these here Appalachian hills. Patricia writes about it in her book, Medicinal Plants of the Southern Appalachians. It is a perennial in the Asparagaceae family and in older classification systems, like many of the lilioids, was placed in the broadly defined lily family. Solomon’s Seal can be found blooming May through June – so this being May, I headed off into the woods.
Some species are considered to be medicinal. The young shoots are edible and cooked like asparagus while the roots, which are the medicinal part of the plant are also edible. Berries, leaves and mature stems should not be eaten. Native Americans used it as both food and medicine, and early settlers valued the rhizome as a food for its starch content. Young shoots can be collected in the spring, not unlike asparagus, and added to soups and stews. Roasted roots can be ground into flour. Solomon’s Seal can be ethically harvested in late summer or early fall by leaving a portion of the root intact. New shoots will grow from where the root was cut.
Solomon’s Seal is found in North America, Eastern Asia, Western Asia and Europe. The species common to Eastern North America is Polygonatum biflorum, referring to the pairs of flowers growing along the leaf axils and commonly known as, Great Solomon’s Seal. A subspecies, commutatum, is known as Smooth Solomon’s Seal. Other species include: hirsutum, Broadleaf Solomon’s Seal (latifolium in Europe) and pubescens, Hairy Solomon’s Seal. A number of species are derived from Asia, but the Super H Mart packaging didn’t give that information and was simply labeled, “Dried Polygonatum, Made in China.”
An elegant Native American woodland plant, Solomon’s Seal likes to grow at the edge of moist woods. It will draw you in with its foliage poised along a gracefully arched stem, dangling pairs of creamy white, tubular fairy bellflowers, which are followed by attractive black seedpods. It is as if this plant were the entryway to a lesser-traveled path, lighted by breaking waves of fairy lanterns beckoning us to enter deeper into the forest’s hidden secrets. Odoratum (Europe) known as, Scented Solomon’s Seal and commutatum (a colonizing giant) are the two shade loving species most widely used in landscaping because of their beauty and attraction. The foliage is food for White Tail deer that will chomp it to just above ground level – and you should know by now that anything deer like to eat, is calling my name.
There are many plants that are included in both the Eastern and Western herbal materia medica, though different species are used. The integration of Western and Chinese herbal therapeutics is an area greatly in need of expanded research and spearheading that movement are herbalists such as Micheal Tierra, author of Planetary Herbology, and Peter Holmes, author of The Energetics of Western Herbs.
The name Solomon’s Seal comes from the healed over scars of the rhizome left by old leaf stems and which resemble a wax seal, presumably the official wax seal of King Solomon. Stem scars also tell how old the plant is with one scar for each year of growth. When the rhizome is cut the cross section reveals a 6-pointed Star of David. Solomon became king during the reign of his father, King David, and was credited with possessing the precious quality of wisdom. I write about the power of this 6-pointed star in my book Wisdom of the Plant Devas: Herbal Medicine for a New Earth. When Solomon prayed to God for wisdom he did not pray for wealth, nor did he wish death to his enemies, but rather he longed for discernment in the administering of justice. The metaphor is one of wise government and possessing the ability to distinguish between good and evil through an understanding of the universe. For this reason, “The whole world sought audience with Solomon to hear the wisdom God had put in his heart.” (1 Kings 10:24) This is the same wisdom that is expressed by the Fire Element in Chinese Five Element Theory. The Fire Element corresponds with the heart is seen as being inseparable from the mind. Heart-Mind is where the spirit resides. Learn more…
By coming into relationship with the healing power of plants we become empowered to be our own healers. The key actions of Solomon’s Seal are: demulcent, expectorant, sedative and tonic. In Traditional Chinese medicine it is known as Yu Zhu. Tea from the decocted root soothes inflammation of the lungs and intestinal tract. Fresh roots can be applied to bruises and sprains as a poultice. According to herbalist, Jim McDonald, Solomon’s Seal is a useful remedy for treating injuries to the musculoskeletal system. He has used it very successfully in tincture form taken internally to strengthen connective tissues and to treat broken bones, sprains, injured tendons, ligaments, tendonitis, arthritis and herniated discs. He states that, “Solomon’s Seal has the remarkable ability to restore the proper tension to ligaments, regardless of whether they need to be tightened or loosened.” One of the ways it does this is by its ability to nourish yin, moisten dryness, clear wind, and to nourish and moisten sinews. It has an affinity for the lung and stomach. Historically Solomon’s Seal was used for respiratory and lung disorders, and as an astringent and anti-inflammatory.
Yu Zhu is used in Chinese herbal soups to relieve dry throat or dry coughs due to lung yin deficiency. It is mildly cooling and nourishes the yin of the lung and stomach. It moistens dryness in the lungs and strengthens the stomach. It requires a long cook time of 2 or more hours and should be avoided by those with stomach deficiency or damp phlegm.
We would not want to conclude this discussion of Solomon’s Seal without mentioning False Solomon’s Seal. False Soloman’s seal is a completely different genus and species, Maianthemum racemosum and should be avoided, as it resembles other deadly plants when young. It produces terminal flowers in a feathery plume while Solomon’s Seal produce non terminal flowers from the axils of the leaves. Patricia told me a story that illustrates the way to know the difference between the two is like knowing the difference between a true and a false friend. A real friend you can depend on to be true through and through (the way the flowers are dispersed on Solomon’s Seal) and a false friend puts on a good front (feathery flowers at the end of the stem.)
Medicinal Plants of the Southern Appalachians, Patricia Kyritsi Howell
Super H Mart – online grocery for Asian food lovers
2550 Pleasant Hill Rd
Duluth, GA 30096
Hmart photo credit