Polemonium reptans is a woodland perennial plant native to eastern North America. Usually growing between 8 and 20 inches tall, it prefers partial shade and moist soil, and is often found alongside streambanks. Its common name, Jacob’s ladder, comes from the appearance of its attractive pinnate leaves, which resemble the rungs of a ladder. It is most conspicuous when it is in flower during mid to late spring. In Wisconsin, you can find it in flower in May and June.
P. reptans is not used often in modern herbalism, but it does have a history of medicinal use. The part of the plant most often used is the root, which is usually harvested in the autumn and dried for later use.
The dried root, described as bitter and acrid tasting, can be used as an infusion in water, or as a tincture in alcohol. It has internal use as a diaphoretic- it induces sweating and can help to lower a fever. As an expectorant, it is useful in the treatment of coughs, to loosen chest congestion (see Mullein). It is also astringent, which can be helpful externally on fresh scrapes, broken skin or blisters, or internally in cases of diarrhea.
Other potential and historical uses for P. reptans include: the treatment of colds and coughs, bronchitis, laryngitis, tuberculosis, fever, and inflammatory diseases including skin conditions and snake or insect bites. It can also be used as a hair rinse for skin conditions such as psoriasis.
Interestingly, Jacob’s Ladder is attractive to cats in a similar way to catnip.
Similar plants include its cultivated counterpart, Polemonium caeruleum, and the variegated P. reptans ‘Stairway to heaven’ (bottom right)
Above photo (bottom left) of P. caeruleum ‘Lambrook Mauve’ courtesy of Andrew at www.growsonyou.com
Other common names of P. reptans include: Greek Valerian, American Greek Valerian, Blue Bells, False Jacob’s Ladder, Sweatroot, Abscess root.