From late spring to mid-summer, star-flowered false Solomon’s seals (Maianthemum stellatum) sprinkle the woodlands with tiny, aptly-described blooms. Along with their cousin, the two-leaved false Solomon’s seal (Maianthemum dilatatum), they are one of the most common forest understory features of Western Washington. Each individual bloom’s stamens and slender, pointed tepals1Tepals are undistinguished petals and sepals. (Sepals are modified leaves that enclose a flower bud and are usually green, but in some species have adopted the form of petals, in which case they and the petals are called “tepals.”) radiate in various directions around the prominent pistil2A pistil is the female structure of a flower, consisting of the ovary, which produces the seeds and typically becomes the fruit after pollination; the stigma, the often enlarged portion that receives pollen; and the style that connects the stigma to the ovary., creating a starry appearance. Upon opening, all parts of the flower are white, although the pistil quickly turns a greenish yellow upon fertilization. The starry effect is all the more enhanced by their manner of opening all buds along a stem nearly at once, creating mini constellations. The blooms are borne in unbranched clusters of up to twenty flowers, although usually far fewer.
Star-flowered false Solomon’s seals are perennials that sprout each year from rhizomes3Rhizomes are thickened stems that grow along or under the soil surface and bear shoots above and roots below. beneath the soil. With these rhizomes, they spread readily, forming a loose groundcover. Above ground, each stem is unbranched and zigzags slightly between the alternating leaves, which are lance-shaped, entire4Having untoothed edges, and sessile5Stemless, sometimes even clasping6Wrapping around or enclosing the main stalk at the point of attachment. From this form, they derive their “false” common name from the similar-looking true Solomon’s seals (Polygonatum sp.), to which they are distantly related and which are not native to western North America. False and true Solomon’s seals are easily distinguished by the location of their blooms: true Solomon’s seal blossoms dangle beneath the stem at each node, whereas false Solomon’s seals always bloom in clusters at the tips of their stems. (Star-flowered false Solomon’s seals similarly resemble the twisted-stalks, Streptopus sp., with which they share a range but which also bloom from the leaf nodes rather than from terminal clusters.) Star-flowered false Solomon’s seals are somewhat variable in size, apparently depending on location, as they are delicate and arching in shady locations, where they rarely exceed 8 inches/20 centimeters in height, but are more robust and upright in sunnier areas, where they can reach 24 inches/60 centimeters.
The star-flowered false Solomon’s seal is also superficially similar in form to its cousin, the plumed false Solomon’s seal (M. racemosum). However, the plumed false Solomon’s seal is significantly larger (up to 3.00 feet/1.00 meter in height), bears densely branched panicles of blooms rather than unbranched racemes, and has thick stamens that are shorter than its tepals, rendering the individual blooms less delicate and more spikey in appearance. (Note the star-flowered false Solomon’s seal’s open, unbranched raceme and fine, proportionately longer stamens than tepals in the accompanying photo.)
After blooming, the star-flowered false Solomon’s seal produces berries that begin green with dark, pencilled lines from end to end and gradually ripen over the remainder of the summer to a deep red or nearly black. Like the blooms, the berries form upturned clusters at the tips of the arching stems.
Look for the star-flowered false Solomon’s seal in shady or semi-open woodlands. It is otherwise tolerant of a variety of conditions and has an impressive range from low to subalpine elevations and coast to coast across Canada, much of the United States, and south into northern Mexico, avoiding hot and humid areas.
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