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Polygonatum odoratum, angular Solomon's seal

Summary

Though theoretically poisonous, the active components are in such small quantities that no record exists of its causing harm. John Gerard's way of describing its use to cure bruising is, however, capable of giving offence.

Blog Entries

Read more about Polygonatum, Solomon's seal, in these blog entries;
Its use in herbal remedies is based on mistranslating the alternative Latin name

Family

Convallariaceae, though it is often said to be in the Liliaceae family and, since 1998, it has been included in the Ruscaceae family.

Meaning of the Name

Polygonatum
From the Greek ‘poly’, ‘many’ and ‘gona’, ‘knee-joints’ from the many joints in the rhizomes.
 
odoratum
Sweet smelling.

Common Names and Synonyms

Solomon's seal, angular Solomon's seal, fragrant Solomon's seal.

How Poisonous, How Harmful?

Contains saponins but in a fairly small amount. Also contains a small amount of the cardiac glycoside, convallamarin, but the quantity is so small that there are no reported cases of poisoning. Ingestion of a very large quantity would be required but the plant is frequently subject to predation which means that it does not form the berries which might be attractive enough to encourage consumption.

Incidents

One visitor to the Alnwick Garden Poison Garden was horrified to find Solomon’s seal as she had, when a child, persuaded a friend of hers to join her in eating the berries which she remembered as being quite sweet and tasty.

A 1983 letter to 'The Veterinary Record' dealt with an apparent poisoning of a dog by Polygonatum but no other reports of poisoning exist.

Folklore and Facts

There are references online to Solomon’s seal being used to make a type of snuff and causing sneezing as a result. This seems to come from Mrs Grieve who mentions its use for this purpose but it is not mentioned by Gerard, Dioscorides, Culpepper or any of the other well-known writers. In the ‘Phantastica’, Louis Lewin devotes two paragraphs to alternatives to tobacco for use as snuff but does not mention Solomon’s seal.

Polygonatum odoratum, angular Solomon's seal

Polygonatum odoratum, angular Solomon's seal

John Gerard claimed it was a panacea for wounds and bruises of all sorts saying that it ‘taketh away in one night, or two at the most, any bruise, black or blue spots gotten by falls or women’s wilfulness, in stumbling upon their hasty husbands fists, or such like’.

Solomon’s seal is the two interconnecting triangles with points said to indicate the positions of Christ’s wounds. Polygonatum spp. have marks on the root which are said to resemble Solomon’s seal. Gerard quotes Dioscorides’ recommendation of using the root to close up wounds but then appears to attribute the alternative name, Sigillum Salomonis, which means seal of Solomon, to Dioscorides though Dioscorides does not use this name.

Gerard says it is good to heal broken bones and hence the name Sigillum, however, sigillum, in Latin, means only the type of seal used as an identifying mark and has nothing to do with joining together. Its use to knit bone would seem, therefore, to be of English origin and based on the English dual meaning of the word ‘seal’.