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.
Medicinal Uses: 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.
Dosages: 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 condition.
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 sparingly.
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 Herbs.