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.

Monday, April 25, 2011


We've had an unusually long and cold winter in Seattle this year. So when my beloved 'Carol Mackie' daphne began blooming this week, I was thrilled. The sweet scent of her flowers is a sure sign of spring.

When I moved into my house 9 years ago, I found this plant nearly dead in the front yard. It was barely 6 inches tall and looked so sickly that I almost tossed it into the compost bin. But with a limited plant budget at the time, I thought it was worth trying to save. So I dug it up and moved it into a protected area in the back garden, where it has been living happily ever after. It is now about 4 feet tall and wide, and would be bigger, except that I prune it each year after it blooms to keep it from overtaking the walkway.

Hundreds of tiny pink buds on this Daphne 'Carol Mackie' will open gradually over a 3 to 4 week period, depending on weather, filling my back garden with fragrance. 

My daphne (formally known as Daphne x burkwoodii 'Carol Mackie') is not as common in Seattle gardens as Daphne odora, or winter daphne. Winter daphne blooms earlier in the year, usually in February. You will find several wonderful specimens in the Witt Winter Garden at the Washington Park Arboretum.

Although daphnes are popular shrubs in the Northwest, they have a reputation for being fussy. They can be planted with all the loving care and attention you can muster, and yet fail to grow. They don't like soil that is too wet, but they don't like to dry out, either. They seem to be doing well, then suddenly, without warning, die.

There is a trick, however, that you can use to increase the odds of your daphne's survival. I've been using this trick with great success for almost 20 years. It is simply this, plant your daphne near a concrete walkway or (better) throw a couple of pieces of concrete rubble into the planting hole. That's what I did with the happy plant you see above.

Why does this work? The soils in the Northwest are acidic, perfect for acid lovers like rhododendrons, azaleas and blueberries. But plants like daphne, that prefer more alkaline soil, struggle. The lime contained in the concrete leaches into the soil a little bit each time it rains or when you water. That lime sweetens the soil around your daphne slightly, making for a happier plant. And when Daphne is happy, she brings beauty to your garden.