Seneca Root

I am looking forward to spending time this coming summer exploring our new land purchase. While building an inventory of forest cover types, I’ll be keeping an eye out for Seneca Root (Polygala senega).

Seneca Root in flower

I have childhood memories of time spent searching for and digging up Seneca Root. After drying the roots, we would bring them to Adilman’s General Store, where we would be paid a few cents per pound, not enough income to feel rich, but enough to buy a few treats.

Although we never picked large quantities (with the exception of my big brother Ray), I remember days when there would be a lot of boxes of Seneca Root at Adilaman’s, mostly brought in by a few serious hard-core root pickers.

Dried Seneca Root

We moved to the city when I was in my early teens, and seneca root rarely crossed my mind until many years later, when I realized that either I was looking in the wrong places or the species had become more scarce. I decided that if I had unwittingly contributed to its demise/extirpation by digging up entire rooting systems (instead of practising sustainable use by leaving part of the roots), I would atone for my transgression by planting some in suitable sites.

From the last sentence in this description on the Environment Canada webswite, it appears that the species has indeed been reduced by over-harvesting, although from other sources it isn’t considered “endangered” or even “threatened” …

A showy plant with several erect, leafy stems, each with a terminal spike of greenish-white flowers, this plant is renowned for its medicinal properties. The thick shallow root is collected and sold to this day through fur auction houses. Polygalic acid which is extracted from the dried ground root is used as an expectorant in the treatment of pneumonia, croup, and asthma. Native people have traditionally used it for respiratory ailments. It has also been found valuable in the treatment of rheumatism. This plant has been largely depleted by digging and overgrazing.


The University of Manitoba has a good article on the species here, including a description of how to propagate it from seed or shoot cuttings. If my explorations of our land don’t find any, I may try growing some.

On the other hand, if anyone knows of a greenhouse selling Seneca Root bedding plants, please let me know.

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