by Laurie Quesinberry
Unlike ginseng (Panax quinquefolius), Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum multiflorum) sells for very little to a local root broker. However, its tendency to grow in thick patches and being easy to dig makes it a poacher’s gold mine. These plants were once found in abundance along the meandering roadsides of my area. As a former poacher, I’ve seen firsthand the damage that’s done by overharvesting and road crews.
As plans for the expansion of Hwy 58 into a four-lane highway chug along and survey lines go up marking land that will forever be changed, you’ll find me fighting the frozen ground to harvest Solomon’s seal roots. Most people wouldn’t look forward to searching the roadsides for brown tops that have died back for the winter, but to me it’s a privilege. You see, no longer are these plants a few pennies in my pocket from the local broker. Instead, this Solomon’s seal is a key to my family’s future.
Looking towards a sustainable path for both my family and the plants is an ever unfolding journey. The more I learn, the more it becomes evident that farming the plants I once harvested from the wild is the only truly viable path. But I’m not a farmer; I’m a digger. Nonetheless, I anxiously await the days when it’s above freezing to go out with my shovel and bucket to gather roots for planting in my less than an acre yard.
This is a whole new concept, and there is no near-by farmer that I can visit to learn from. Instead the plants are teaching me and leading the way. In the wild Solomon’s seal grows alongside its close cousin, giant Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum var. commutatum), and together they thrive. Medicinally interchangeable, giant Solomon’s seal’s unique root growth habits hold great promise as a commercial crop.
Giant Solomon’s seal is fast growing and has massive roots in comparison to standard Solomon’s seal. One root has the potential to grow over two feet long and weigh half a pound. Thriving in conditions where the roots are compacted and growing intertwined, a 3×5 foot patch of plants can yield twenty or more pounds of sellable root.
Another wonderful aspect of giant Solomon’s seal is its propagation. Easy to grow by seed, these plants also self propagate. In the wild, I often find mother and grandmother roots that are creating baby roots off of their sides. As the older root dies back, the offspring establish themselves and carry on. Knowing that root division is part of Solomon seal’s natural life cycle shows me that it’s possible to use smart root division to my advantage.
With well over one hundred pounds of Solomon’s seal in the line of bulldozers, I’m on a mission to rescue as much as I can and use it to create a thriving farm. All around my house, I’m creating beds and holding places for rootstock. Following the cues of nature, I’m dividing roots into different lengths for planting back with the hope that each piece will create a new plant. As the ground thaws, I’ll plant these divisions in beds based on their size. With this model, we’ll be able to harvest different beds each year putting back cuttings and babies to start the cycle all over again. Additionally, thousands of seeds will be produced and planted back. The potential is truly as amazing as nature herself.
As the demand for Solomon’s seal rises, with no end in sight, it’s foreseeable that this plant will all but be lost within my lifetime. On the other hand, the future doesn’t have to be so grim. If all goes well, this spring my land will be bursting forth with plants—a sign that true change is possible not only for me, but also for other diggers in my area. This is a growing example of how thinking outside of the prescribed box and looking at nature differently can create a better future for both our families and the plants around us (unconventional to say the least). But I believe the plants are leading us down an unconventional path. They have a plan and “if we listen, they will teach us” the way.
Laurie Quesinberry, a generational digger and mountain woman, is steeped in the traditions of Appalachia wildcrafting. Laurie’s unique perspective towards commercial wild harvesting started as a poacher and evolved into the role of plant- and land-steward. Today she’s working to breathe new life into old traditions, while preserving a path for the future by promoting sustainable harvesting methods for “At-Risk” plant medicine.