IT'S ARCHITECTURE. Sure, most of the reference books refer to the flowers of Solomon's seal as "showy." And these clusters of large, pendulous blooms certainly are showy according to the understated aesthetics of a natural landscape. But let's face it: Greenish white flowers bordered with, um, more green are not what a lot of gardeners would consider showy.
Nevertheless, Solomon's seal should recommend itself to even the most drama-loving gardeners: Its greatest strength is its all-but architectural presence. The high-arching stems reach 5 feet under the right circumstances; the large, tapering leaves, with their strong whitish veins, are attached to these stems in a fashion that reminds one of bamboo; when they fall they leave a distinctive scar that is probably the reason the plant is called Solomon's seal. And the flowers, well the flowers are just the icing on the cake, drawing attention to the arching stems by dangling beneath them in clusters of white (ok, greenish white) bells. Whether the blooms are showy is subject to debate, but I doubt anyone would deny that this plant is dramatic.
A member of the lily family, the native Solomon's seal comes in two species, which are virtually identical in appearance: Polygonatum biflorum, smooth Solomon's seal, is native to the eastern United States and south central Canada. P. pubescens, hairy Solomon's seal, is native from Nova Scotia to Ontario in Canada and south to Georgia and Iowa.
The plant blooms in spring, with the flowers attracting both butterflies and bees. The flowers are pollinated by bees that have mastered the trick of vibrating the blooms in order to release their pollen. The blooms are followed by black, blue, or green berries that are attractive to birds, although they are mildly toxic to humans.
Aside from the berries, which should be avoided, many parts of this plant are edible. Young shoots and leaves can be boiled for 10 minutes and eaten like asparagus; the roots can be dried and ground into flour or boiled for 20 minutes and eaten like potatoes. Native Americans valued the plant for both culinary and medicinal purposes.
Solomon's seal is adapted to woodland settings, where its tendency to shoot up and arch over other plants makes it a perfect backdrop or accompaniment to smaller woodland wildflowers. It's highly adaptable and should naturalize well in almost any shady, moist spot, preferably one with humusy soil.
It also makes a phenomenal container plant, as I discovered recently after planting a clump in a pot on my deck. Planted in a big pot full of straight compost and getting a couple of hours of full sun every day, this clump shot up to to nearly 3 feet in a matter of weeks and proceeded to bloom with abandon. (You can see the original planting in this entry from May 20.) Because it does tend to grow straight up and then arch, it makes an superb structural element for a container planting that includes other, shorter woodland plants. Unfortunately, I haven't had much luck getting a photo that would do this plant justice, but here's one that at least may give some sense of how tall it has grown: You can see that the stems are now taller than the deck railing. And it's still growing!