Description & Overview

Considered a spring ephemeral, this Wisconsin native will bloom in mid to late Spring and maintain excellent foliage throughout summer; an uncommon feature for spring bloomers. The flowers provide nectar and pollen to some of Wisconsin’s first pollinators of the season. Spreading Jacob’s Ladder is typically found throughout the southern two-thirds of the state on wooded slopes, woodland bluffs, and the banks of streams and rivers.

You may also know Spreading Jacob’s Ladder as Creeping Jacob’s Ladder, False Jacob’s Ladder, Abscess Root, or Greek Valerian.

Core Characteristics

Category: Perennial

Wisconsin Native: Yes

USDA Hardiness Zone: to zone 3

Mature Height: 8-20 inches

Mature Spread: 12-20 inches

Growth Rate: Perennial

Growth Form: Mostly upright, creeping habit.

Light Requirements: Full Sun to Full Shade

Site Requirements: Rich, loamy soil with moist to moderate moisture.

Flower: Sweetly scented, lavender-blue, 5-parted, ½" wide, and bell-shaped.

Bloom Period: May – June

Foliage: Green, alternate, pinnately divided, 7-17 leaflets about 1 ½" in length.

Fall Color: Tinged with red.

Urban Approved: Yes

Fruit Notes: ¼" seed capsule. Readily reseeds but not aggressively.

Suggested Uses

Spreading Jacob’s Ladder prefers rich and moist soil and can handle full sun to full shade, although it seems to thrive in shadier environments. Planting on the northern side of a structure or home would be ideal.

Lavender-blue, bell-shaped flowers are dainty but their color and interesting foliage make them stand out in the landscape. Jade green leaves are stacked like a stairway, hence the common name. Blooming prolifically, flowers tend to droop to the side, giving the plant a delicate appearance, and lending its use to a more natural landscape.

Use Spreading Jacob’s Ladder as a groundcover in woodland settings or on slopes where its roots can help reduce erosion.

An important species for bees and providing essential food early in spring, plant Spreading Jacob’s Ladder in a native or pollinator-friendly garden and watch as they’re attracted to the sweetly scented flowers.

Considered a spring ephemeral, this Wisconsin native will bloom in mid to late Spring and maintain excellent foliage throughout summer; an uncommon fe…
Considered a spring ephemeral, this Wisconsin native will bloom in mid to late Spring and maintain excellent foliage throughout summer; an uncommon fe…

Wildlife Value

Bees are the primary pollinator of Spreading Jacob’s Ladder including bumblebees, carpenter bees, cuckoo bees, and mason bees. Bumblebees, in particular, are highly attracted to the plant, and queen bumblebees depend on spring flowers to sustain their nest and begin to grow a colony.

A mining bee (Andrena polemonii) is a Polemonium specialist, only visiting the flowers of Jacob’s Ladder. In return for providing nourishment, the bees help cross-pollinate it as the plant cannot self-pollinate.

Other visitors include Syrphid flies, Spotted Lady Beetles (Coleomegilla maculata), Clouded Sulphurs (Colias philodice), Sleepy Duskywing (Erynnis brizo), Juvenal’s Duskywing skippers, the Celery Looper (Anagrapha falcifera), and the delightfully entertaining Hummingbird Moth (Hemaris thysbe).

Maintenance Tips

It is important to keep the soil moist as Spreading Jacob’s Ladder will go dormant in drought conditions. Adding mulch around the base of the plant (but not directly touching the stems) will help retain moisture in the soil. This plant prefers some shade, especially in the afternoon. While it can handle full sun, the soil moisture must be moist at all times.

To encourage continuous bloom, deadheading can be done by cutting the stems back to the base of the plant. If you’d like the plant to spread, leave the flowers intact so that they can set seed.

If desired, remove spent leaves in early spring.

Considered a spring ephemeral, this Wisconsin native will bloom in mid to late Spring and maintain excellent foliage throughout summer; an uncommon fe…

Pests/Problems

Black Walnut Tolerant: Yes
Deer Resistant: Yes
Rabbit Resistant: Yes

There is conflicting information on whether or not Jacob’s Ladder is deer and rabbit resistant. When the plant is browsed, it is likely due to high deer and rabbit pressure in the area, all competing for limited resources. If nothing more appetizing is available, they may snack on the blooms as well as the foliage if needed for survival. If the flowers are eaten, there is less likelihood that the plant will re-bloom and set seed which will affect the long-term population of the species. Post-flowering, the plant will produce beige to tan-colored fruit.

Spreading Jacob’s Ladder is tolerant of juglone, the black walnut toxin, making them an excellent choice for these difficult spots.

Leaf Lore

The genus Polemonium is derived from the Greek word for war, “polemos.” As explained by Pliny, “Two ancient kings went to war because they couldn’t agree which of them first discovered its virtues”.

The specific epithet reptans means “creeping.” The plant does not creep per se, but its form makes it appear so.

The common name refers to the pinnately divided leaves and their resemblance to a ladder; a tribute to a ladder climbed on by angels as seen in a dream by the biblical Jacob.

The Meskwaki tribe historically used Jacob’s Ladder’s root as a diuretic and cathartic.

With a scent that is purported to attract cats, similar to catnip, felines will roll around on the foliage. Excessive rolling may cause damage to the plant. All the more reason to keep your cat(s) indoors!

Companion Plants

Plant with those that enjoy similar conditions such as Giant Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum biflorum), Woodland Phlox (Phlox divaricata), Prairie Alumroot (Heuchera richardsonii), Sharp-lobed Hepatica (Hepatica acutiloba), Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica), Wild Geranium (Geranium maculatum), Shooting Star (Dodecatheon meadia), Large-flowered Bellwort (Uvularia grandiflora), Large White Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum), Jack in the Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum), Carolina Allspice (Calycanthus floridus), Ligularia (Ligularia spp.), and Bladdernut (Staphylea trifolia).

Mix with other groundcovers for a pretty blanket effect. Canada Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense), Pennsylvania Sedge (Carex pensylvanica), Starry False Solomon’s Seal (Maianthemum racemosum), Bigleaf Aster (Eurybia macrophylla), Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum), and Wild Strawberry (Fragaria virginiana).

Considered a spring ephemeral, this Wisconsin native will bloom in mid to late Spring and maintain excellent foliage throughout summer; an uncommon fe…
beth delain1 avatar

Written by Beth DeLain