Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum spp.) is an edible plant in the Asparagus family that can be grown in a shade garden or foraged in the wild. In this article, you’ll find out how to grow, forage, and eat Solomon’s seal as well as its Asparagus family relative, false Solomon’s seal (Maianthemum racemosum).
What is Solomon’s seal?
Solomon’s seal is the common name of a genus (Polygonatum) of woodland-dwelling flowering plants common throughout temperate climate regions around the world. Many species of Solomon’s seal can be found growing wild in the United States.
Solomon’s seal is also a popular landscape/garden plant, especially bred varieties with variegated foliage.
Where does the name Solomon’s seal come from?
When the plants go dormant in the fall and winter, the previous year’s growth dies back and breaks off from the underground rhizome. At the point of detachment is a scar which is similar in appearance to the Seal of Solomon (the predecessor of the Star of David).
This is why the plant earned its common name: Solomon’s seal or King Solomon’s seal.
What is Solomon’s seal good for?
Solomon’s seal is useful as a shade garden plant, since it tolerates low light conditions. Ideal growing conditions are about 2-4 hours of direct sunlight (in the morning or late afternoon but NOT midday) with dappled sunlight or shade during the middle of the day.
In addition to being an attractive shade garden plant, Solomon’s seal is also an excellent edible vegetable once you know how and when to eat it…
What parts of Solomon’s seal plant are edible?
Except for the berries, every part of Solomon’s seal is edible, with some caveats:
a. Young shoots
The young shoots (before the leaves have opened) which emerge from late winter through early spring are the best edible part of Solomon’s seals. The shoots taste like asparagus, but sweeter and better.
You can eat them raw (in moderation) or cooked (exercising less moderation).
As the leaves open, the stems become more fibrous and bitter; not worth eating. Mature Solomon’s seal leaves should not be eaten since they’re relatively high in glycosides (which can cause stomach upset), plus they’re too fibrous and bitter to be good.
Note: We recommend harvesting no more than ~25% of the shoots from Solomon’s seals you grow or forage to ensure the plant has plenty of energy to continue thriving.
Solomon’s seal flowers are our second favorite part of the plant. The dainty white-green flowers dangle elegantly from peduncles attached all along the main stem.
Immature/unopened Solomon’s seal flowers are pill-shaped before opening into a bell-shape. The flowers are best eaten within a couple days of opening when they’re still firm.
Solomon’s seal flowers taste like asparagus dipped in honey; truly delicious! They also make a lovely, flavorful garnish.
Solomon’s seals form fairly large underground rhizomes, somewhat similar in appearance to ginger. Each year, they spread and eventually form dense colonies.
We find Solomon’s seal rhizomes to be too small and woody to be much use as a food crop, especially relative to other root crops like ginger & turmeric, Peruvian ground apples, American groundnuts, and others. Rather than harvest them, we leave the rhizomes alone to spread and produce more vegetative growth in future years.
However, Solomon’s seal rhizomes do have a long history of medicinal use, especially in Asia. As a recent medical review found:
“… some traditional uses of Polygonatum species have been confirmed by pharmacological studies, such as its anti-osteoporosis, neuroprotective, immunomodulatory, anti-diabetic and anti-fatigue effects. Most of the pharmacological effects of this genus can be attributed to its polysaccharides, saponins and lectins.”
So think of the rhizomes less as a food and more as a medicinal plant to be used in teas, tinctures, and similar applications.
Solomon’s seal berries ripen from green to dark blue/purple. They might look good, but they’re poisonous to humans and should NOT be eaten. Birds love them and will spread their seeds far and wide.
You can also harvest and sow seeds from the mature berries to grow new plants, as we’ll discuss below.
False Solomon’s seal versus Solomon’s seal
The aptly named false Solomon’s seal (Maiathemum racemosum) is an edible Solomon’s seal lookalike that you’ll see growing in the wild throughout North America, often in close proximity to Solmon’s seal. Both plants are in the Asparagus family (Asparagaceae), look similar, and have edible parts.
How do you tell Solomon’s seal apart from false Solomon’s seal?
Solomon’s seal and false Solomon’s seal have similar looking foliage. Thus, the easiest way to distinguish them is via their reproductive anatomy:
- False Solomon’s seal has clusters of white-colored flowers that form on the very end of the stem. Solomon’s seal flowers form all along the underside of the stem, with 1-4 white-green flowers hanging from each peduncle.
- False Solomon’s seal produces clusters of tiny dark red berries (each about the size of a large elderberry) in the late summer/fall at the end of each stem. Solomon’s seal produces purple/blue berries (each about the size of a blueberry) along the underside of the stem.
Can you eat false Solomon’s seal?
You can eat the young growth shoots of false Solomon’s seal raw or cooked. They have a similar asparagus-like flavor to Solomon’s seal shoots.
You can also eat the tender white flowers of false Solomon’s seal. Flavor? You guessed it: sweet, mild asparagus.
Lastly, you can eat the red berries of false Solomon’s seal, with three caveats:
- There is quite a bit of berry flavor variability between plants. The ones I’ve eaten taste wonderful for about 2-3 seconds (almost like molasses) which is then followed by a strong bitter flavor. There’s a single, large seed inside each berry that you can spit out.
- Some people report that eating a lot of the raw berries causes a laxative effect, so don’t eat too many at once until you have a sense of how your body will react to them.
- In some areas, there are plants that produce poisonous red berries (example: red baneberries) that can be mistaken for false Solomon’s seal berries. ALWAYS be 100% certain you’ve correctly identified any wild food before eating it.
False Solomon’s seal rhizomes are technically edible, but they’re tough and fibrous like Solomon’s seal rhizomes.
How and when to forage Solomon’s seal and false Solomon’s seal
Depending on where you live, the exact months for foraging Solomon’s seal and false Solomon’s seal may vary. Spend enough time in the woods, and you’ll get in sync.
In our area, Ag Zone 7b in Greenville, SC:
- the young shoots of both plants can be harvested in March-April depending on yearly temperature fluctuations;
- flowers from both plants can be harvested soon after, usually in April-early May.
- dark red ripe False Solomon’s seal berries can be foraged from ~September into winter (or later if birds don’t eat them).
Where do they grow?
You’ll find Solomon’s seal and false Solomon’s seal growing along hiking trails in healthy, mature mixed/deciduous forests throughout North America.
We’ve seen them growing in relatively wet spots close to creeks and on steep slopes. However, thriving plants and colonies are always shaded and growing in relatively deep leaf litter.
How to grow Solomon’s seal
We grow Solomon’s seal as one of multiple plants in an edible shade garden area on our property that’s part of a mature food forest. It’s a drought-tolerant perennial that requires virtually zero care (once established), and thrives in the shade of mature oak and hickory trees hanging overhead.
The leaves from these trees provide a weed-blocking mulch that also serves as a slow-release fertilizer for the Solomon’s seal.
The two key factors you’ll need to pay attention to when growing Solomon’s seal are:
- Select spots that will get either full shade or partial shade during the warm months; and
- Make sure the plants are mulched in the fall, either via leaves that fall from trees or via mulch you apply yourself (wood chips, shredded leaves, etc).
The plants grow best in rich, slightly damp but well-draining soil, which decomposed mulch will soon provide. If you’re starting in poor soil, you can amend the spot with some compost before planting Solomon’s seal.
Best varieties of Solomon’s seal
There are varieties of Solomon’s seal that can grow from Zones 3-9, so make sure the variety you’re interested in can grow in your Zone.
We grow a beautiful green- and white-striped variegated Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum odoratum var. pluriflorum ‘Variegatum’) but there are numerous other varieties to choose from.
For instance, a variety native to the US, Polygonatum biflorum var. commutatum, is known as Great Solomon’s seal, since it can reach a height of 7′ tall. On the opposite end of the size spectrum is dwarf Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum humile), native to Asia, that only reaches about 9″ tall.
Or you can opt purely for Solomon’s seal species/varieties native to your area. If you happen to live near us in Upstate South Carolina, Clemson University lists three native species:
- Small Solomon’s seal (P. biflorum var. biflorum),
- Large Solomon’s seal (P. biflorum var. commutatum), and
- Downy Solomon’s seal (P. pubescens).
So what’s the best variety of Solomon’s seal? It depends on your goals. Are you trying to grow native plants? Grow an attractive shade garden landscape? Grow food?
If food production is your primary aim, we’d advise you to opt for larger Solomon’s seal varieties ideally suited to your Ag Zone.
How to start Solomon’s seal from rhizome or seed:
You can either: 1) buy Solomon’s seal rhizomes from online retailers or local plant nurseries, or 2) collect mature fruit/seed from plants.
- It will take about 3 years for Solomon’s seal grown from seed to reach reproductive maturity (produce flowers/seed).
- Depending on the age of the rhizome you’re starting with, it will take 1-2 years for them to flower.
Growing from rhizome – If you’re starting Solomon’s seal from rhizome, bury the rhizomes horizontally about 2″ deep in soil, then cover the soil with a 1-2″ layer of mulch.
If you’d prefer NOT to buy rhizomes, you can also cut off a chunk of a mature but dormant rhizome in fall/winter and immediately transplant it to the spot you wish to grow it.
Growing from seed – If you’re starting Solomon’s seal from seed, you can simply stick the seeds (or dark blue ripe fruit containing seeds) in the ground about 1/4″ deep in late summer-early fall. They’ll cold stratify, then germinate and emerge in early spring as the soil warms. (Or you can sow the seed in small pots left outdoors to overwinter before transplanting.)
Whether starting from seed or rhizome, during the first year, supplemental irrigation may be necessary to make sure your Solomon’s seal plants are happy – unless you get rain every week or so in the summer. Our Solomon’s seals are now established ~10 year old plants and we never water them even during hot, dry spells.
How long do Solomon’s seal plants live?
We like growing edible plants that will outlive us, and Solomon’s seals are no exception. They can live for many decades and some wild colonies are estimated to be more than 100 years old!
How to keep deer from eating Solomon’s seal
In our experience, Solomon’s seal has only serious pest: deer. Deer eat the young spring shoots and will also strip off the mature leaves.
In our article, How to keep deer out of your yard or garden, we detail effective ways to prevent deer from eating your plants, including Solomon’s seal.
It’s also important to note that the above growing instructions can just as easily be applied to false Solomon’s seal!
Now you know how to grow, forage, ID, and eat Solomon’s seal AND false Solomon’s seal!
Other articles you’ll want to sink your teeth into:
- Fruits, herbs, and vegetables that grow in shade
- How to start your own edible & medicinal mushroom garden
- The easiest fruit to grow organically in the southeast (30+ species!)
- 16 incredible edible wild flowers
- 13 garden greens you can grow in the summer in hot climate zones