Ask the Gardener

Ask the Gardener: Is it Solomon’s Seal?

CorrespondentJune 13, 2014 

Solomon’s seal has pairs of bell-shaped flowers; false Solomon’s seal has clusters of small, starry blossoms.

L.A. JACKSON

I discovered what I thought was Solomon’s seal at my new home. It is a 17-year-old house in Raleigh. However, a friend of mine called it “false” Solomon’s seal. Can you help me here, because it sure looks like Solomon’s seal.

Denise Taylor

Raleigh

There is actually a plant called false Solomon’s seal – and I hate the name. It implies that, when compared to the true Solomon’s seal, it is a lesser plant, which this eye-catcher isn’t. Just ask the Brits. This dependable North American native has been a favorite in English gardens for centuries. Although closely related – they are from the same subfamily Nolinoideae – these two perennials hail from different genera, with Solomon’s seal residing in Polygonatum, while false Solomon’s seal calls Smilacina home. But they do look a lot alike.

The best way to tell the difference is to examine their flowers and berries. Solomon’s seal develops multiple pairs of bell-shaped flowers and dark berries that droop below the arching stems. False Solomon’s seal has clusters of small, starry blossoms dangling off the end of each branch, and these are followed up with berries that mature to a reddish tint.

Transplanting colchicums

Fifty-plus years ago my Dad planted two fall-blooming crocus (colchicum). The original plants still produce their showy foliage in spring but no longer bloom. Instead, a dozen or more of their tiny offspring pop up every fall several feet away. I’m making a new flower bed where the little ones grow and would like to lift them, add mulch and soil, and replant them in the same place.

There are a number of clumps of what looks like regular crocus foliage in the area where the fall blooms come up. Could this belong to the seedling colchicum plants even though it looks nothing like the original foliage? I don’t want to risk digging up the wrong thing and losing those long-enduring plants.

Mary Sechriest

Chapel Hill

If there is a chance the mystery foliage comes from the offspring colchicums, now is not the time to move them. Colchicum leaves usually die down by the beginning of July in this area, so if this foliage fades by then, it is a good bet it comes from your fall-blooming crocus. A good time to move the corms is when these leaves have wilted away, so to properly transplant them, you might have to delay that new flower bed just a bit.

Colchicums can also be transplanted when in bloom – meaning you will definitely know they are what they are supposed to be – but it might take a year for the plants to get back into their natural rhythm in the garden. And speaking of natural rhythm, if your Daddy’s plants were never divided in 50-plus years, I am not surprised they went into a flowering funk – over-crowded colchicums will definitely balk at blooming.

What’s eatng petunias?

I recently planted some petunias in my front yard, and now the leaves have holes and ragged edges from something eating them, and some of the plants have wilted. I have looked carefully on the plants and have found no bugs. Could it be rabbits?

Alice Wayne

Raleigh

Rabbits normally make clean, scissor-like cuts on leaves and tend to be more thorough, meaning they – like deer – usually eat the young plants right down to the nubs and use the roots for dental floss. But you didn’t catch any critters in the act, which makes me think of that rock ’n’ roll album by the Edgar Winter Group: “They Only Come Out at Night.”

Wait until the sun sets and take a flashlight to examine your plants. Two plant-chewing varmints in particular, cutworms and slugs, like to do their dastardly deeds under the cover of darkness – and both can cause damage similar to what you describe. If you find either, the mystery has been solved! An easy way to dispatch them is to pick the offending plant predators off and toss them in a cup of soapy water.

L.A. Jackson is the former editor of Carolina Gardener Magazine. Send your garden questions, including the city where you garden, to: askthegardener@newsobserver.com.

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