Friday, May 13, 2011

Favorite Plants: Solomon's Seal

One of my favorite woodland plants is beginning to unfurl in my garden right now. It is Solomon's Seal (Polygonatum odoratum).

This herbaceous perennial (herbaceous meaning that the foliage dies down in fall; perennial meaning that it comes back year after year) is always one of those great surprises in the garden in spring. Even though I know where it is planted, it is astonishing to see it rise up out of the ground in just a matter of days, from little pointy "noses" barely poking out of the soil to 4 foot tall arching stems.
The underside of the stems is lined with double rows of bell-shaped flowers that are slightly fragrant. The flowers fade in time, but the arching stems continue to grace the garden until late October, when the leaves turn yellow and fall, and the stems die back.

Solomon's Seal likes shady, woodland garden settings. The cultivar, 'Variegatum,' has white edges on the leaves and its stems are dark red when they first emerge.

This plant spreads via underground rhizomes. To propagate, divide clumps in early spring. You'll need a sharp shovel for this job, as the root/rhizome balls are dense.

This plant is in the same family (Liliaceae) as the Northwest native, False Solomon's Seal, but not in the same genus. If you are looking for the native at local nurseries, the botanical name is Smilacina racemosa. The plants are easy to tell apart when they are in flower. False Solomon's Seal has a conical spray of tiny white flowers at the end of each stem and no flowers under the stems. Without flowers, the plants look very similar.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Magnolia Stellata

In Latin, the word "stellata" means starry. (For more on Latin botanical names, look here.) Knowing this makes it easy to identify this small, shrubby member of the Magnolia family. Instead of the well known, cup-shaped flowers magnolias are famous for, this lovely little tree has flowers that look like stars.

In bloom right now in Seattle, these Star Magnolias are wonderful additions to small gardens and mixed borders. There are several varieties, all deciduous and slow growing. They can reach 10- 20 feet high, with a spread from 10- 20 feet. Be sure to check plant labels for specific sizes before you buy one.

These trees add interest to the winter garden with a profusion of fat, fuzzy flower buds that resemble pussy willows. The buds open in early spring with flowers that light up the landscape and, depending on the variety, scent the garden with a light fragrance. Most trees have white flowers, but there are pink forms as well.

As with all flowering plants, it is best to buy them in bloom to be sure you get the color and fragrance you want. If you can, plant this magnolia where you can see it from your window because it is truly one of the stars of the spring garden.