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Polemonium reptans (Abscess root)

Category: Medicines - plant based



Introduction and description


Polemonium reptans is a flowering plant in the genus Polemonium, native to eastern North America.

Common names include abscess root, creeping Jacob's ladder, spreading Jacob's ladder, false Jacob's ladder, american Greek valerian, blue bells, stairway to heaven, and sweatroot. 

It is a very pretty plant and has medicinal value.



At the time that Mrs Grieve wrote her herbal, Abscess root grew from New York to Wisconsin, in rich damp woods, damp ground, and along shady river-banks.  It range now extends from Minnesota to New Hampshire in the north, and from Georgia to Mississippi in the south. It is most abundant west of the Appalachian Mountains.


Polemonium reptans is a perennial herbaceous plant growing to 50 cm tall [about 9 to 10 inches high], with pinnate leaves up to 20 cm long with 5–13 leaflets.

The nodding, blue flowers are in loose, terminal bunches. The flowers are blue to violet, 1.3 cm long, with a five-lobed corolla.


It has creeping roots, by which it multiplies very quickly. The slender rootstock, is 1 to 2 inches long and 1/8 inch in diameter, with the bases of numerous stems on the upper surface, and tufts of pale, slender, smooth, wiry, brittle roots on the underside.

Medicinal uses

The dried roots were once used medicinally and we have an observation from Mrs Grieve which shows that at one time the plant had a number of uses. 

She said it had ‘a slightly bitter and acrid taste’. The root is rarely used in modern herbalism. It is harvested in the autumn and dried for later use. 

Related observations