Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Wisdom of Solomon and a Misogynist Joke (?!) in a 16th. century herbal

We recently found this large patch of Solomon's Seal Polygonatum multiflorum growing amongst bluebells in the wild flower meadows near Hawthorn Dene on the Durham coast. It's a native species but certainly a garden escape along this coast.

There are various stories about how it earned its common name but the most likely seem to relate to the disc-shaped scars on the surface of its rhizomes or to the pattern of vascular bundles in the rhizome that are revealed if you cut it into thin slices (for herbal use - see below), which supposedly look like royal seals with Hebrew writing. How this is linked to Solomon, he of 700 wives and 300 concubines, remains a mystery. John Gerard quotes the story in his Herbal of 1597. 

The reason Gerard included it in his herbal was that the plant has a history of use in medicine that dates back to the days of the ancient Greek physician Dioscorides, especially for treating bruises and broken bones. Gerard says that "the root of Solomons seale stamped while it is fresh and greene, and applied, taketh away in one night, or two at the most, any bruise, blacke or blew spots gotten by falls or womens wilfulnesse, in stumbling upon their hasty husbands fists, or such like", which is a quip that no doubt might have amused his renaissance readers (and maybe multi-wifed Solomon) but  which most would find deplorable in our thankfully more enlightened times. 

He also mentions that Matthiolus, the Italian 16th. century physician, "teacheth that a water drawn out of the roots, wherewith the women of Italy use to scour their faces from sunne-burning, freckles, morphew, and any such deformities of the skin" which, - who knows? - might yet be revived by the cosmetics industry.


  1. Thanks for your comments on Solomon Seal. I have that in the garden with my Virginia Blue Bells so I was sure to read all you wrote. Always informative. Jack

  2. Hi Jack, thanks for the kind comment. Do you suffer from the solomon's seal sawfly in your neck of the woods? It shreds the leaves of the plants in my garden but doesn't seem to do them lasting harm...


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