Every year, knowing what the winter brings, I combine a
little Solomon seal with some honey to make a cough syrup.
The taste is woodsy-spiry, and even the kids think it's
delicious-well at least for a medicine. We use it to
relieve congestion and minor coughs, and we count on it to
get us through the bitter season of colds and flu.
Description: The Solomon seals are members of the lily
family, and while there are numerous varieties, two of them
are used medicinally: Smooth Solomon seal (Polygonatum
biflorum) and false Solomon seal (Smilacena
racemas). These can be used interchangeably. Both
plants favor forested areas and grow in dry or damp woods
or at the edges of forest along the sides of roads and
paths. They are also planted in perennial or woodland
gardens for ornamental purposes.
The roots of both types of Solomon seal are similar; they
are marked with round scars or "seals" where a leaf stalls
has broken away from the root. However, in the smooth
Solomon seal, roots tend to be a bit darker, a golden-cream
color, and have heavier, knobbier seals than the false
Solomon seal. Both plants have broad, lance-shaped leaves
along a single arched stem. These leaves grow up to six
inches long, are alternate in both species, and have
distinct parallel veins. Solomon seals may grow up to three
feet in height.
In the smooth Solomon seal, the leaves are smooth on both
the surface and underneath. The blossoms appear from each
leaf axil, dangling underneath the leaf pair. Blossoms are
small, up to 2/3" in length, and are bell-shaped, with six
flaring lobes at the tip. The flowers, which occur in
clusters of two, are pale greenish-white. Look for the
herb's blossoms in late spring and early summer.
The fruit, a dark bluish-black berry, develops from the
dangling flowers and hangs from the same leaf axils,
generally in pairs. The berries are suspended from a thin
green stalk, and occasionally the plant can be found with
the stalks, even after the berries have dropped off.
In the false Solomon seal, leaves are somewhat hairy along
the margins and on the under surfaces. The blossoms occur in
a branched cluster at the terminal end of the stem, which
is triangular in shape. Flowers are just 1/8" long, with
three ivory or white petals.
Fruit appears first as a translucent green berry with pale,
brownish-red speckles. As they mature, the berries become
bright translucent red. The fruit occurs in clusters at the
terminal end of the stem, and the cluster forms a pyramidal
or triangular shape, much like the flower cluster.
The Solomon seals are both demulcent and expectorant. They
help soften mucus in the respiratory system, which is an
important step in preventing congestion from causing an
infection. In their function as expectorants, the Solomon
seals also help move mucus upward, making it easier to
expel it out of the body. These two actions help keep
symptoms of mild respiratory congestion from becoming a
serious cold or flu.
Harvesting: Dig roots of the Solomon seals
only after frosts have killed the foliage and the leaves
are brown and withered. Unearth the root, and wash
carefully. Slice into thin pieces and spread to dry; store
when all moisture has been removed.
Combine one teaspoon of dried root and 1 1/2 cups of
boiling water; simmer for five to 10 minutes. Drink three
times daily for relief of symptoms. Or simmer the dried
root in equal its weight in honey to produce a syrup. Heat
must be kept low so as not to destroy the medicinal
properties. Drink 1/2 to one teaspoon of this syrup three
to four times daily.
After bringing home wintergreen, l spread it on the
table and pick through it, throwing out bug bitten or
imperfect leaves. The healthiest leaves go into a quart
jar, and I pour rubbing alcohol over them to make a
wintergreen liniment. I store the jar on a shelf in the
herb cabinet, where it can set for a couple of weeks. I put
the rest of the leaves on screens to dry out, which 1 will
use to make wintergreen tea. This tea is not only
delicious, but also healing.
Description: Wintergreen is a low growing, perennial
evergreen found in hard wood or conifer forests. It has
aromatic leaves and fruit, and is often seen as the shiny
green undergrowth in woodlands; you can often find it under
snow in winter.
The wintergreen's leaves grow in an alternate fashion but
appear as a whorl atop a stiff branch, rising from the
creeping stem that trails at ground level. Leaves are oval
or egg-shaped, and a bit longer than they are wide-up to
two inches in length, and dull underneath. The margins are
slightly toothed, and leaves may turn maroon or dark red
when exposed to sunlight or hit by a sudden frost.
The wintergreen's bell-shaped flowers are white or
pinkish-white. They are composed of a five-lobed corolla
with a constricted tip, and five small teeth that flare out
from the lobes. Blossoms, about 1/4" to 1/3" long, hang in
loose nodding clusters from leaf axils. They are most often
found underneath the leaves, hanging in groups of one to
three blossoms, although some plants bear more. Look for
blossoms during the spring through early summer.
The fruit, a bright crimson berry, can be found on the
plant in fall through winter and into the following spring.
This edible berry has a strong minty flavor, and is
somewhat mealy in texture.
Medicinal Uses: Wintergreen's primary medicinal property is
methyl salicylate, the basic compound of aspirin. The
plant, analgesic and astringent, is used internally or
externally to help relieve pain.
Externally, liniment of the herb can be applied to
arthritic or rheumatic joint inflammations where it may
help reduce pain and irritation. The liniment can also be
used for strained or sore muscles; apply along with a
gentle massage to relieve aching.
Internally, wintergreen tea can be taken for general relief
of minor pains. It may be helpful for headaches, in the
discomfort of arthritis or rheumatism, or in muscle aches
and pains after strenuous exercise. Since wintergreen is
also diuretic and antiseptic, it can be taken internally
for mild bladder irritations; wintergreen can help increase
the flow of urine while easing the pain associated with the
The oil of wintergreen, which can be purchased from an herb
or health food store, can provide relief for irritated
teeth and gums. However, it is highly concentrated; use
Harvesting: Gather wintergreen when the plant is in bloom,
and select only the healthiest-looking leaves. (Pluck
leaves from several branches.) Once you get them home,
spread the leaves out on screens, paper bags, or baskets,
and keep them out of the sun. Because the leaves are
somewhat fleshy, the wintergreen leaves may take longer
than other plants to dry. You will know the plant is ready
to store when a leaf snaps easily between your fingers.
Dosages: For wintergreen tea, combine one to two teaspoons
of the leaves for every cup of boiling water. Cover and let
mixture steep for 10 to 15 minutes, and drink three times a
day for pain relief or to help bladder irritations. If you
are using the oil of wintergreen for painful teeth
irritations, place a drop on your finger and apply
externally to the affected tooth and gum. Apply three or
four times daily.
Editor's note: Corinne Martin, a graduate of the
Institute of Traditional Herbal Medicine in Santa Fe,
NM, is a certified clinical herbalist who
has studied plants for over a decade. This passage is from
her book Earthmagic: Finding and Using Medicinal