One of the treats of this time of year is learning the identity of the Perennial Plant of the Year. This honor goes not to a newcomer in the trade but one that has proved itself of great worth over time. It is sort of a life achievement award given by the Perennial Plant Association. The award is designed to raise a plant’s profile in the garden marketplace and encourage more people to plant it in their gardens.
This year the award goes to a perennial I know well and admire greatly. It is the variegated Solomon’s seal, a small plant that produces arching stems with tiny bell-shaped flowers among green leaves with white tips and margins.
As a winner, it joins such important and popular perennials as Becky Shasta daisy, Goldsturm rudbeckia, David phlox and May Night salvia. All of these have been honored since 1990.
The genus for this year’s winner is Polygonatum odoratum, and it is named Variegatum for its green and white foliage.
Shade gardeners in the Piedmont know this as an excellent garden flower. It mixes well with hostas, hardy ferns and other plants that thrive in low light with moist but well-drained soil and contribute variety and texture. In addition to good-looking stems, flowers and leaves, the plant remains attractive through the growing season, with the foliage turning yellow in fall. It sends up fresh stems each spring from roots called rhizomes.
Mine has grown nicely over the past seven or eight years to form a neat clump with many arching stems, 18 to 24 inches tall. While it does spread by underground roots, it is not invasive or weedy, an important consideration in flower beds.
The association says the name Solomon’s seal derives from two possible sources. The first is that the scar remaining on the rootstock after the leaf stalks die off in the fall resembles the seal impressed in wax on documents in olden days. The second is that the Renaissance botanist and herbalist John Gerard suggested that the powdered roots were a remedy for broken bones. Gerard, who died about 1611, also felt that the plant had the capacity for sealing wounds.
Today, we look to it neither as a seal nor a cure, but strictly for its ornamental value in the shade where it should find a place this year.
Plants can be set out in spring or fall. They may also be dug and divided in spring or fall, but wait until you have a good-sized clump because part of the beauty of this fine plant are the multiple stems rising from the ground laden with the pretty white bells. The flowers last a couple of weeks, but the foliage looks good until it fades and goes in autumn.