The first time I identified False Solomon’s Seal, Smilacina racemosa, in person was this past July in the woods, while leading a private guided tour near Wilsonville, Oregon (hi, Bruce!). What caught my eye was its distinctive berries, which I recognized from reading field guides. When unripe, as they are for most of the summer, False Solomon’s Seal berries are an interesting mottled beige speckled with red and brown spots. I knew, also, that they were in the lily family because the smooth leaves had parallel veins. And another reason I knew what I was looking at is that the berries are all at the end of the plant’s stalk, as opposed to staggered throughout. Botanists refer to this arrangement as a “terminal cluster.”
According to Nancy Turner’s excellent book, “Food Plants of Coastal First Peoples,” these berries were eaten by indigenous people here back in the days of full-time foraging. As I read more about the plant in other sources, I learned that the berries would turn bright red in the fall. So I waited patiently for September to roll around and hoped to get a chance to taste them in their full glory.
(And — I was thrilled that I had gotten some excellent photos of the mottled unripe berries to show you here. Sadly, I then spilled tea on my camera phone last month and the photos are now gone, so please excuse my use of Wiki photos in their stead).
I got my chance to try the ripe red berries Sunday. I was out in eastern Oregon, in a town called La Grande, doing a private plant identification walk for a really lovely client, and though the ecology is quite a bit drier out there — more desert-like, with Ponderosa Pine and such — we did come across some ripe False Solomon’s Seal berries. My expectations were pretty low, as I had read in the Pojar and MacKinnon field guide, “Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast,” that the berries are “edible, but not especially palatable.” To my surprise, the berries tasted fantastic! They were very sweet and syrupy. The only downside to them at all is they have rather large pits you end up spitting out, but no worse than seeded grapes.
Now, generally, that Pojar book is considered the gold standard, but in this one case, I have to say, that description was not true at all. I wonder if maybe the authors tasted the unripe berries and didn’t realize it? When I tasted the unripe berries in July, I did think they were bland.
OK, so if you want to taste some ripe False Solmon’s Seal berries for yourself, go look for it in the forests in partial to full shade, in somewhat moist soil. It’s a native plant, not a weed. Make sure you find a plant that has those lily leaves with parallel veins, that the leaves are alternate, that the berries are all on the very end of the plant’s stalk, and that the height of the plant is not more than a meter tall. It is distributed all across North America, from British Columbia to Georgia, so even if you’re reading this blog far outside the Pacific Northwest, you can likely find it. Actually, hey — pssst — if you do live in Portland, Oregon, then I know where you can try these: visit the Hoyt Arboretum.
False Solomon’s Seal’s Latin name is Smilacina racemosa, as I mentioned earlier, but for some reason the botanists decided to confuse us by also calling it Maianthemum racemosum. There’s also another kind of False Solomon’s Seal, called Star-Flowered False Solomon’s Seal, Smilacina stellata, or Maianthemum stellatum, which has a more sparse spray of flowers, and unripe fruits which are white and striped purple, and ripe berries that are described as “dark blue or reddish black” at maturity. Both kinds are edible. And just to confuse you further: Some people also call this plant “False Spikenard” instead of “False Solomon’s Seal.”
The rhizomes also have been used as food by native people, though it takes a lot of effort: they traditionally soak them in lye first to get rid of a reportedly “acrid” taste (and then boil them to remove the lye, before eating). Sam Thayer writes in “Nature’s Garden” that you can also eat the shoots in early spring, but that they are bitter. He says the same thing about the berries, though, and notes that we in the Pacific Northwest seem to have a sweeter species than those of you out East.
I should also mention that forager-author Steve Brill writes that the raw berries might cause diarrhea and suggests boiling them first, and if you are a cautious type you might like to do that, but I can tell you that a) the indigenous people at them raw, spitting out the seeds, and b) I ate them raw and had no adverse reaction and c) I haven’t read anything about them being a laxative. Maybe it’s in the seeds? If you’ve ever eaten them and had a bad reaction, do tell me in the comments. And if instead you’ve eaten them many times and enjoyed jelly and so forth with no trouble, tell me that, too!
I would be remiss if I did not tell you about the long list of medicinal uses this plant is known for. A decoction of the root has long been used for rheumatism and blood cleansing. Interestingly, a tea of the leaves have a history of use by native people as a cough medicine as well as a contraceptive. I would love to find more information on how exactly they used it as a contraceptive — what dose, when, how often. (If anyone reading this knows, please tell me). The root is also burned and inhaled for catarrh, and as a medicine to calm children having crying fits. The aforementioned info all comes from Native American Ethnobotany by Daniel Moerman.
News & Events:
~ Catch me on TV teaching some folks how to forage wild herbs for beer brewing on the Esquire Network’s new show “Brew Dogs” on Tuesday, Oct. 29, at 10 p.m. I haven’t seen the edited footage, but I am pretty sure they’ll show my discussion of yarrow and cedar.