Jacob’s Ladder

Polemonium, also known as Jacob’s Ladder or Stairway to Heaven is the genus of about 40 species of flowering plants belonging to the Polemoniaceae family. They are native to cool temperate to arctic regions of Northern Hemisphere. One species also grow in South America’s Southern Andes.

Most of them can be found at high altitudes in mountains and the total number of species that grow in Eurasia is inconclusive and debatable. Many of these have been synonymized with P. caeruleum in the past. They are perennial (rarely annual) plants reaching heights as long as 10 to 120 cm. with vibrant green leaves divided into leaflets resembling a lance, and produce blue (rarely pink or white) flowers in Spring and Summer. Larvae of some Lepidoptera species (including Coleophora polemoniella) thrive on Polemonium species.

Species

  1. Polemonium acutiflorum – Tall Jacob’s Ladder
  2. Polemonium boreale – Northern Jacob’s Ladder
  3. Polemonium brandegeei – Brandegee’s Jacob’s Ladder
  4. Polemonium caeruleum – Jacob’s Ladder (the original plant to bear this name); Charity
  5. Polemonium eddyense
  6. Polemonium elegans – Elegant Jacob’s Ladder
  7. Polemonium eximium – Sky Pilot
  8. Polemonium foliosissimum – Towering Jacob’s Ladder
  9. Polemonium grandiflorum
  10. Polemonium mexicanum
  11. Polemonium micranthum – Annual Jacob’s Ladder
  12. Polemonium nevadense – Nevada Jacob’s Ladder
  13. Polemonium occidentale – Western Jacob’s Ladder
  14. Polemonium pauciflorum – Few-flower Jacob’s Ladder
  15. Polemonium pectinatum – Washington Jacob’s Ladder
  16. Polemonium pulchellum
  17. Polemonium pulcherrimum – Beautiful Jacob’s Ladder
  18. Polemonium reptans – Greek Valerian
  19. Polemonium sumushanense
  20. Polemonium vanbruntiae – Van Brunt’s Jacob’s Ladder
  21. Polemonium vilosissimum
  22. Polemonium viscosum – Sticky Jacob’s Ladder
  23. Polemonium yezoense
  24. Polemonium californicum – Showy Jacob’s Ladder
  25. Polemonium carneum – Royal Jacob’s Ladder
  26. Polemonium caucasicum
  27. Polemonium chartaceum – Mason’s Jacob’s Ladder
  28. Polemonium chinense
  29. Polemonium confertum – Rocky Mountain Jacob’s Ladder
  30. Polemonium delicatum

Type Species

Polemonium caeruleum

Scientific Classification

  • Kingdom – Plantae
  • Angiosperms
  • Eudicots
  • Asterids
  • Order – Ericales
  • Family – Polemoniaceae
  • Genus – Polemonium

Common Names

  • Greek Valerian
  • Blue Bells
  • Sweatroot
  • Abscess Root
  • Jacob’s Ladder
  • Stairway to Heaven

Description

There are two species that are primarily found in the garden. The first, Polemonium reptans is native to Northeastern US and is acknowledged as threatened species in some states. Environmental care for Jacob’s Ladder includes educating gardeners and discouraging them from taking wild plants for transplant. On the other hand, Polemonium caeruleum is specifically designed for the garden, and is rarely found growing in the wild.

One of the best features of Jacob’s Ladder is its foliage. The plant forms a group of closely clustered leaf stems, each carrying tiny leaflets, almost resembling a fern in its appearance that climbs along the stem like the ladder of the Biblical dream of Jacob. This ladder formation is called pinnate.

Each plant reaches long as 1 to 3 feet and spreads 1.5 to 2 feet wide. The flower clusters are droopy and hang like bells from the elongated stems. They come in pink, white, blue or yellow color depending upon the cultivar. Once firmly rooted, these plants need very little maintenance and an occasional trimming would suffice.

History

Stairway to Heaven” was discovered in a group of Polemonium reptans seedlings growing in Massachusett’s Framingham. William Cullina patented it for its long life and New England Wildflower Society (NEWS) introduced it to the common mass.

Cultivation

The Jacob’s Ladder is a woodland perennial (rarely annual) plant that likes a shady to partially shady place for growing. Their leaves have a propensity to scorch with extreme heat conditions. It grows best in organic material rich soils and looks for damp (but not too wet and too soft) environment. Once its roots are firmly entrenched, it can deal with drought situations pretty well. This plant is not prone to insect infestation or diseases and it is also deer resistant. There are two methods of propagation:

  1. Seeds: Cultivars will not always breed properly from seed, but if the gardener is not selective about colors, purchased or self-sown seeds can generate some intriguing results. The tiny brown seeds need to be sown directly into the Earth in Spring when there will be no frost at all. The seeds will be then loosely covered with soil powder, watered gently, and will be kept moist until the seedlings originate. The seeds will germinate rapidly and should be thinned to about 1.5 feet apart. The foliage will appear at the first year, while the flowers will wait till the second season to bloom. 
  2. Divisions: For best results, divisions should be made in the early Spring when new growth starts to appear. The gardener should dig the whole plant from the ground with utmost care. The basil rosettes need to be separated by tearing apart the roots and replanting each of the resultant Jacob’s Ladder plants in its new place. The garden should also be replenished with rich organic soil. The new transplants should be watered well and the ground should be kept moist for a couple of weeks to give the plants enough time to rehabilitate.

Maintenance Needed

These plants require very little maintenance. After blooming, their stems can become excessively long and straggly. Jacob’s Ladder will rebloom once their stems are cut back to the base. At times, especially in old plants, their foliage can become brown and torn. All the ugly looking foliage should be trimmed and new growth will appear almost instantly. Trimming the plants and foliar feeding occasionally would always suffice. Most varieties can grow in USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) hardiness zone 2 to 8. Stairway to Heaven is suitable for sunset climate zones (SCZ) 1 to 11 and 14 to 17.

Soil Preference & Watering

The plant usually likes a lime and moisture-rich soil and does not crave for bright sunlight. It will require a variable amount of water depending upon its condition. If it is a hot summer, then it would need some extra water. Usually sturdy, some varieties like Blue Pearl imitate as tender biennials, which indicates the fact that they are annuals in cooler climates (below USDA hardiness zone 6) in-principle. Cultivated varieties include “Blue Pearl” and “Brise d’Anjou”, white-flowered “Album” and “White Pearl”, and a multi-colored “Snow and Saphires”.

Pests & Other Health Issues

The plant does not have any significant insect or disease problems. “Leaf Spot” can occur, and Leafminers or “Powdery Mildew” can infect, especially in humid climates. The foliage may burn if the plant receives too much sunlight. The leaflet tips will turn brown if it does not get enough water. It is a good idea to check the water levels routinely. The foliage will shrink and hang low, and eventually loose much of its appeal, as the summer progresses. It is essential to look out for land slugs. Felines are attracted towards its aroma, especially when the plants are young. Someone who is growing this plant in a container or home garden should make necessary arrangements to keep the cats at bay.

Gardening Style

Zen, cottage, and rustic.

Patent Act

Asexual reproduction of plants protected by the plant patent act (PPA) is prohibited during the lifetime of the patent.

Companion Plants

Coral Bells or Heuchera, Turtlehead or Chelone, Hosta, Joe-pye Weed or Eupatorium, Spiderwort or Tradescantia.

Care And Protection

Basic Care Needed

  1. All infected plant parts should be cut and destroyed.
  2. Air circulation should be improved by thinning and pruning.
  3. Fertizilation should be postponed until the problem has been resolved.
  4. The plants should not be watered from above.

Additional Care Needed

A fungicide should be applied and it is a good idea to read the label first to be sure that they are safe and will be effective on the type of plant that is infected. One should watch out for ingredients like potassium bicarbonate, neem oil, sulfur or copper. A home remedy made from baking soda is also an effective fungicidal. The ones made from milk kills the Powdery Mildews as well. For continuous protection, most fungicides will need to be applied periodically for every one week to a fortnight. The label instruction should always be followed religiously for both application and waiting period before the harvest season.

If the plants are infected by Leafminers:

  • Least toxic or fast line of defence: Insecticides are rarely suggested to manage Leafminers. As the damage is mostly cosmetic, the most appropriate solution is to cut the affected leaves. This does a lot more than just enhancing the look of the plant. It also throws out all the existing leafminers before they become adults and start laying more eggs. As the tunnels in the affected leaves are nothing but dead tissues, it does not serve any purpose to keep them on the plant. They will not improve the appearance of the plant.
  • Less toxic or second line of defence: Spraying natural insecticides like neem in early Spring will prevent the adult Leafminers laying eggs.
  • Most toxic or last line of defence: There are quite a few systemic insecticides and pesticides that are absorbed by the plants and that flow throughout the plant tissues. However, most of them are pretty strong and some of these which contain acephate or imidacloprid is not legitimate to use in the eye of the law at many places. There are no systemic available at present for personal use on edible plants.

The best approach to control the menace of Leafminers is to watch for symptoms or “red flags,” so that the issue can be arrested and contained as early as possible.  

Health Benefits & Non-medicinal Usage

  1. Jacob’s Ladder was first used by the Greeks to treat toothaches, animal bites, and dysentery.
  2. Was also used to cure rabies and syphilis in some places in Europe during the nineteenth century.
  3. At present, this plant is used in potpourris and boiled in olive oil for making black dyes and hair-dressing.
  4. Bees consume both the pollen and the nectar of its flowers. 
  5. Perfectly fits the role of a landscape cover for attracting beneficial insects. It is suitable for container planting due to the shape of its growth. The flower can be used as a cut flower or foliage and may adorn bouquets because of its wonderful aroma. One can grow it in a rock garden or perennial border.
  6. The root herbs are extremely useful in healing diseases like laryngitis, bronchitis, cough, cold and various other fevers. 
  7. Roots are also used to treat insect bites, snake bites, and skin allergies for its anti-inflammatory benefits.
  8. The plant is used as an exceptional astringent.
  9. Roots help in reducing inflammation and increase the rate of perspiration.
  10. Can also be used as a decongestant for chest as well as a drying agent.
  11. Dried ground root powder is used to cure irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
  12. Many people consider this plant to be an important addition to their daily green salads and relishly eaten with other foods as well.

Possible Adverse Effects, Associated Risks, And Necessary Precautions

  • May cause gastrointestinal problems and allergic rhinitis.
  • Should not be consumed by expecting and lactating moms.

N.B. – There is very little information about its side effects. Any other ill effects are not reported, except the aforementioned ones.

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