On a recent field trip to H Mart, an Asian supermarket near Atlanta, Georgia, I drove south from my mountain home in anticipation of new discoveries and old treasures. Having previously lived in San Francisco, I knew the excitement of exploring an Asian grocery store, large or small.
Asian markets are a great way to save on medicinal herbs, exotic foods, seaweeds and fungi — an experience not to be missed. Lost in extensive rows of mushrooms and seaweeds between a fish market and food court, I could have easily spent an entire day at H Mart. The “H” in H Mart is short for Han Ah Reum, meaning “One Arm Full of Groceries.” One of the medicinal herbs I brought home is Polygonatum, native to east Asia. It is also a plant that grows in my backyard, in the surrounding woods where I live in Asheville, North Carolina.
Polygonatum is a perennial herb that belongs to the Asparagaceae (Asparagus) family, and in older classification systems, like many of the lilioids, was placed in the broadly defined lily family. A genus that contains approximately 50 species of flowering plants known as Solomon’s Seal, it is a common plant in the Appalachians, and can be found flowering between May and June.
Some species are considered medicinal, most notably; Polygonatum biflorum, odoratum, and sibiricum. The species common to Eastern North America is Polygonatum biflorum, referring to the pairs of flowers growing along the leaf axis. The young shoots are edible and may be cooked like asparagus.
The medicinal part of the plant is the rhizome, which is harvested in the fall, then dried and sliced. Native Americans used it as food and medicine. 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 rhizomes can be ground into flour. Solomon’s Seal can be ethically harvested by leaving the portion of the rhizome connected to the stalk intact. New shoots will grow from where the rhizome had been cut.
An elegant Native American woodland plant, Solomon’s Seal likes to grow at the edge of moist woods. Its foliage is poised along a graceful arched stem with dangling pairs of creamy white, tubular fairy bellflowers. These are followed by attractive black seedpods.
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 us 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.
“The Medicine Wheel Garden as it exists on Earth is a three-dimensional representation of the ‘as above, so below mysteries.’ It is in the shape of a circle that contains a six pointed star, and it is a mirror of the heavens. As it sits on the earth in three-dimensional reality, it represents the six directions: east, south, west, north, above, and below. Within this garden grows all the food and medicine that sustains us in our current form while simultaneously feeding our evolution into our light bodies.”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 governance 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)
Wisdom and Heart (Heart-Mind) both correspond with the Fire Element in Chinese Five Element Theory. The Fire Element rules the nervous system, and Solomon’s Seal helps us adapt to stress by restoring the cooling fluids of the deep feminine yin, which keeps masculine Fire from burning out of control. Solomon’s Seal relaxes the nervous system and treats yin deficient conditions, especially when they involve emotional disturbances and stress. In this manner, Solomon’s Seal acts as an adaptogen.
The key actions of Solomon’s Seal are demulcent, expectorant, sedative, and tonic. In Chinese Medicine it is known Yu Zhu, and is most prized as a yin tonic. Yin tonics work by restoring the Water Element (Kidney), which cools the Liver (Wood Element). Tendons and ligaments are the body part that correspond with the Wood Element, and this is why Solomon’s Seal is used to help heal injured tendons, and restore proper tension to ligaments. It does this by its ability to nourish yin, moisten dryness, and to nourish and moisten sinews. Solomon’s Seal also quells wind, relieving pain and spasms due to wind generated fluid deficiency.
Connective tissues that are dry lack flexibility. Yin fluids must be adequate if we are to remain flexible, especially in times of change. Otherwise, an overheated Liver from lack of fluids will cause Wood to break when the winds of change blow, no different than a tree from lack of Water. By increasing synovial fluid, Solomon’s Seal also helps to reduce inflammation in the joints.
Historically Solomon’s Seal was also used for respiratory and lung disorders. It has an affinity for the lung and stomach. Yu Zhu is used in Chinese herbal soups to relieve dry coughs due to lung yin deficiency. It moistens dryness in the lungs and acts as spleen and stomach tonic, improving appetite and reducing fatigue.
We would not want to conclude this discussion of Solomon’s Seal without mentioning False Solomon’s Seal. False Solomon’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. 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.)
By coming into relationship with the healing power of plants we become empowered to be our own healers. Solomon’s Seal is an especially important ally for these transformational times, beckoning us to enter the forest’s hidden secrets on a lesser-traveled path, a path lighted by breaking waves of Polygonatum’s fairy-like lanterns. Enter…
Energetics: Sweet, slightly cold, Neutral
Nourishing soup stock: Add dried Polygonum to your favorite soup stock and simmer for a minimum of two hours. Rinse and soak briefly before using. Choose dried herb that is soft and has a white yellowish color. Can be found in most Asian markets and herbal shops.
Decoction: 1 ounce dried rhizome to 1 quart water, or 2 tablespoons per pint. Simmer covered for 20 minutes, then steep for 40 minutes, strain.
Dosage: Drink 4 ounces, three to four times a day.
Tincture: Fresh root – 1:3 in 95%. Dried Root, 1:5 in 50%.
Dosage: 5-10 drops, 3x/day, or follow product label directions
Contraindications: Polygonatum is considered safe: The American Products Association has given it a class 1 rating, meaning that it can be consumed safely when used appropriately. Due to its sweet and cooling nature, Polygonatum is contraindicated in spleen deficiency with dampness, or coughs with profuse phlegm, stomach deficiency, phlegm-damp, phlegm stagnation, or qi stagnation. Do not use in case of loose stools due to cold.
Learn more in Thea’s Five Element Classes online at Wise Woman University
Medicinal Plants of the Southern Appalachians, Patricia Kyritsi Howell
Wisdom of the Plant Devas: Herbal Medicine for a New Earth, Thea Summer Deer