Garden Guru: Shady competitor seals victory as top plant

By John Porter
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Whether you realize it or not, a plant that could reside in your garden is considered a champion in plant circles -- or at least a highly regarded individual.Many different garden industry and enthusiast organizations name a "plant of the year," based on either member votes or variety trials. The aim is to both educate gardeners about new and interesting plants and to encourage sales of those certain plants in garden centers.The All-America Rose Selections picks a rose of the year (this year it is a pink number called 'Francis Meilland'), and the American Hosta Growers Society picks a hosta of the year ('Rainforest Sunrise'). All-America Selections (separate from All-America Rose Selections) releases several flower, vegetable and bedding plant awards each year.Today, though, let's take a look at the Perennial Plant of the Year, which comes to us from the Perennial Plant Association. The association has released a plant of the year since 1990, with awardees ranging from ornamental grasses to ferns to flowers. This year the award went to variegated Solomon's Seal (Polygonatum odoratum 'Variegatum'), which is a close relative of our native Great Solomon's Seal (P. biflorum var. commutatum or P. commutatum, depending on whom you ask).The genus name Polygonatum means "many knees" in Latin, referring to the many-jointed nature of the plant's rhizomes. The Solomon's Seal name also has two possible origins: from the leaf scars on the rhizome resembling the wax seals of a king to the fact that the plant was used medicinally to "seal" wounds.There is also disagreement as to which plant family Solomon's Seal belongs to. It looks like the most recent information places the plant in the family Asparagaceae, with, you guessed it -- asparagus.With everybody disagreeing about proper Latin names and common names, it's about time that people started agreeing about this plant. Any Solomon's Seal is a wonderful addition to the landscape.Dainty pairs of white, bell-shaped flowers hang from gracefully arching shoots lined with oval leaflets. The flowers give way to inky blue-purple (and inedible) berries in the fall, followed by a foliage change to showy golden yellow.
This species is different from our native species in a few ways. The most striking difference is the variation of the leaves; the native species has solid green leaves, whereas this plant has white tips and margins on its leaves. P. odoratum also sports reddish-colored stalks, as opposed to the green ones of the native species. Our native Solomon's Seal can grow 3 feet tall or higher, depending on how happy it is. P. odoratum 'Variegatum' grows only to 2 feet. As the scientific name suggests, P. odoratum also has sweet-smelling, fragrant flowers.Solomon's Seal is a great plant for shady or woodland areas. This plant is low-maintenance, requiring little work beyond digging up and dividing the roots every few years (and that isn't really required). It has virtually no serious insect or disease issues and can thrive in a variety of situations. The plant can live in partial to dense shade and prefers well-drained, moist soil (though it can tolerate dry conditions).Its choice of habitat makes it an easy companion for hosta, astilbe, heuchera, ferns and other shade lovers. It is hardy in USDA zones 3-8. Most of West Virginia is zone 6.These plants also naturalize very easily, spreading to fill in large areas. This, combined with its low-maintenance attitude, makes Solomon's Seal an excellent candidate as a taller ground cover for shady areas under trees, on wooded hillsides and more. Since they aren't picky, Solomon's Seal would make a great addition to shady spots in rain gardens.Lavender FairMy friends at the West Virginia Herb Association are preparing their upcoming Lavender Fair. The fair will take place from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. June 15 at Fish Hawk Acres in Rock Cave, Upshur County. Come learn how to grow, cook, craft and use lavender in many ways around your home.Vendors and speakers will provide all kinds of lavender throughout the day. Lunch will be available for a fee, but admission is free. It's a family fun event. Call Melissa Dennison, 304-364-5589, or Ann Nye, 304-842-6385, for details, or visit
John Porter is the WVU Extension Service agent for agriculture and natural resources in Kanawha County. He may be reached at or at 304-720-9573.
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