Jacob’s Ladder

Oh my…  Learning flowers can be such a chore.  Just when you think you’ve learned something, someone throws a curve ball…

Along a creek crossed by the road that leads to Group Camp 12 at Allegany State Park, I found this plant:

Jacob's Ladder

Botanist friend Suzi informed me that it is called “Jacob’s Ladder.”  That should be easy to remember!  The leaflets look like little ladders climbing to heaven.  I’ve learned a new flower!  Yeah!

Jacob's LadderImagine my surprise when I got to work and found this plant in our Native Garden.  (How did I not notice it before?…  Hmm…  I guess we only see things when we are ready to see them…  I suppose that’s a topic for a future post?)

While waiting for a school group to arrive, Jeff noticed the plant, too, and asked, “What’s this?”  I proudly announced, “That’s Jacob’s Ladder.”

One of Jeff’s personality traits is that he questions everything and everyone… which can be very annoying at times…  In this case he asked, “Are you sure?  Or is it Greek Valerian?  I always get those two mixed up…”

Oh fine!  I guess I’ll be hitting the field guides and doing some googling…

Turns out I was right…  in as much as “Jacob’s Ladder” is the common name given to the entire genus (Polemonium).  I love it when I’m right.

Jacob's Ladder Closeup

I was right, yet when it comes to the species level, I don’t know what I have there or here…  I don’t know what I had at Allegany State Park, nor do I know what’s in the garden at Audubon.

It would be cool if we had P. vanbruntiae, though I don’t think the stamens protrude nearly enough to make it that.  It would be cool, because it is considered “rare” in New York State and:

Jacob’s-ladder was described as a new species in 1870 by N. L. Britton of the New York Botanical Garden and named after Mrs. Cornelius Van Brunt who made excellent collections from the Catskill Mountains of New York. New York has the greatest number of populations and some of the largest populations of Jacob’s-ladder in the world.

There are 31 known sites and over 20 historical populations. A review of the known sites may show a high level of interaction and gene flow between the sites, whereby multiple “sites” may represent a single population. As a rough guess, New York likely has 10-15 populations represented by 31 sub-populations. Many of these sites are in isolated wetlands and/or within protected landscapes. While rare, this plant is well-protected within New York.  (source

Besides, according to the USDA Plant Database, the common name for the species P. vanbruntiae is “Jacob’s Ladder”.

Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide lists the common name Greek Valerian with the Latin name Polemonium reptans and descriptions that include “stamens not protruding” and “stems weak and reclining”.  That might describe the Allegany State Park specimen I found…  I’d have to go back and examine it more closely.

The USDA Plant Database also lists 39 different species in the genus Polemonium.  The only species in their list given the common name “Greek Valerian” is P. reptans.  I’m sure that is NOT what is in the garden.  After looking through all the different species, I think the one in the garden looks most like “Towering Jacob’s Ladder” – a plant of the southwest…  Hmm…  I wonder where those gardeners got that plant?

There’s just so much to learn…  Each day, I learn something new and at the same time, I am humbled.


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4 thoughts on “Jacob’s Ladder

  1. Pretty! Here in California, I’ve seen (Western) Jacob’s Ladder (P. occidentale), and, very rarely, the beautiful Sky Pilot (P. viscosum). Not one of the more common genuses (genii?), nor a particularly easy one to identify to the species.

  2. It is interesting how one doesn’t see a plant, can walk by them for years , then all of a sudden one notices it and then sees it everywhere! I’ve been finding a number of “new plants to me” this year and have wondered where my eyes have been.

  3. What a lovely flower, and nice to see one that is not yellow or white. Wildflower ID can be so challenging. I have several unlabeled pictures.

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