Jacob’s Ladder Plant: Growing Polemonium Caeruleum At Home

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Once upon a time, the Jacob’s ladder plant was called the “charity plant”, although it shouldn’t be confused with the Mahonia species that also bears that common name. It’s also been called “Greek valerian”, although it’s not a valerian. Confused yet?

You shouldn’t be. Jacob’s ladder gets its common name from the ladder-like or pinnate structure of its leafy foliage. And in the spring and early summer months, it shoots up slender stalks from which hang clusters of bell-like flowers.

A shade-loving variety, it has origins overseas, but is often found in the United States in garden cultivation now. It’s such an easy-growing plant that it can even be considered slightly invasive if it’s in the right environment! However, it can be maintained and kept to its beds as well.

Let’s delve deep into the world of the Polemonium species, and I’ll tell you all about this beautiful perennial!

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Jacob’s Ladder Overview

Jacob's ladder plant
Jacob’s ladder plant. Source: Rachel Ford James
Common Name Jacob’s ladder, charity plant, Greek valerian
Scientific Name Polemonium caeruleum
Family Polemoniaceae
Light Partial to full shade
Water Evenly moist watering required, more in summer months, no standing water
Temperature Grows best in zones 3-8, especially zones 6-7.
Humidity Tolerates humidity but can develop fungal diseases in higher humidity environments
Soil Rich, well-draining soil with lots of composted plant matter
Fertilizer Regular applications of compost is best. If using fertilizer, apply balanced fertilizer once in early spring and again after blooms fade.
Pests Leaf miners and slugs. Also eaten by groundhogs and chewed/rolled on by cats.
Diseases Powdery mildew, some fungal leaf spots.

All About Jacob’s Ladder Plant

Polemonium reptans or false jacob's ladder
Polemonium reptans is a related species sometimes called false Jacob’s ladder. Source: woolcarderbee

With its origins in the temperate regions of Europe and Asia, Jacob’s ladder plant is a beautiful addition to any garden. That’s largely why it’s become naturalized in multiple environments worldwide today!

Native to areas of meadowland, woodlands, and grasslands, this shade-loving species derives its name from its pinnate leaves that resemble the rungs of a ladder. It is an excellent low-maintenance plant which is often grown as a deer-resistant flower in many gardens.

There are two species which have the name “Jacob’s ladder”. The one we’re focusing on today, Polemonium caeruleum, is the cultivated variety which can be found at your local garden center. Optimized for garden growing, it’s a highly-desirable burst of color in shadier locations.

A related species, Polemonium reptans, is referred to as “false Jacob’s ladder” or “creeping Jacob’s ladder”. Native to the northeastern United States, it is considered a threatened wild plant in some states. It’s not ideal in a garden environment due to its tendency to be very leggy.

Growing about 18-24 inches in height, Polemonium caeruleum often reaches a similar width to its height. Some cultivars can become even larger, up to about three feet tall.

Its leave may be fully, vibrantly green and lush, or may have other colorations. Examples of the variegated varieties are “Stairway To Heaven”, which has a cream-colored foliage, or “Bressingham Purple”, which has deep green foliage streaked with dark purple.

Jacob’s ladder blooms in the spring to early summer months, often at the same time as allium species and the bleeding heart plant. Bell-shaped flowers hang in clusters from the end of their flower stalks, and may range in color from blue to pink, yellow, purple or white.

For most of its preferred growing environments, it can easily be grown as a perennial. In some locations it acts as a self-seeding annual.

Caring For Jacob’s Ladder

Easy to grow, Jacob’s ladder is suited to beginning gardeners in a wide range of locations throughout the United States and Europe. As far as flowering plants go, this is a great starting choice! Let’s discuss the best conditions for your Jacob’s ladder plant now.

Light & Temperature

Purple jacob's ladder flower
A purple Jacob’s ladder flower in bloom. Source: nordique

While I wouldn’t consider Jacob’s ladder plant to be a low-light plant, I do consider it to be a less-light plant. It prefers to grow in shady or semi-shaded spots, mostly because it can develop sunburn if it’s in too much direct sunlight.

Now, there are cultivars which are much more tolerant of the direct sunlight than others. Green and leafy varieties are often more tolerant than the variegated-leaf varieties.

It can be difficult to strike the right lighting balance to promote flowering without causing damage to the plant’s leaves. If this is your situation, it’s best to opt for a healthy, foliage-dominant plant than to try to push for heavy flowering. It will flower, just a bit less.

Jacob’s ladder plant is a perennial, but some varieties do act as annuals in cooler climates (hardiness zones below 6). Overall, the plant flourishes in zones 3-8, but can be grown in many more, even up to zones 10-11. It just needs to be in a more protected location if it’s hot.

Water & Humidity

This plant prefers to have evenly-moist soil conditions, but it won’t tolerate standing water. It’s important when dealing with Jacob’s ladder plant that you opt for well-draining soil to ensure that it doesn’t puddle around the plant.

Overall, the frequency of water should be gauged off how well the plant is developing. As a shade-tolerant species, there’s a bit less evaporation than if it were directly in the sunlight all day, which means your watering frequency varies depending on what lighting it gets.

Aim for consistency. Your plant is somewhat adaptable, and in fact can be quite drought-resistant once its roots are firmly established. It may require extra watering during the hotter months of the year, but otherwise consistency is key.

Humidity can become a concern for Jacob’s ladder, as it’s prone to powdery mildew. Avoid wetting the leaves directly whenever possible, and provide good airflow around your plant.

Soil

Lavender jacob's ladder
Lavender to white Jacob’s ladder plants. Source: nordique

In regards to the soil, your Jacob’s ladder plant loves a nice, rich soil that’s rich in organic material. Heavy applications of compost are recommended to make your plant thrive at its peak!

Prior to planting, blend in a good amount of compost to your planting bed to encourage ready growth. Make sure that the soil is still well-draining so that standing water doesn’t build up, as this can cause root rot to develop. Avoid or amend poor or clay-like soils.

While pH doesn’t appear to be a significant issue for Jacob’s ladder, aiming for a neutral range is usually best for whatever other plants you decide to pair with it.

Fertilizer

If you apply a layer of compost around your plant a couple times per year, it probably won’t need fertilizer at all!

However, if you do opt to use a separate fertilizer, aim for an early spring feeding with a balanced fertilizer. This promotes new growth. Feed again once the flowers have faded and the flower stalks are cut back to try to encourage another flush of flowering.

Propagation

Purple Jacob's ladder flower cluster
Bright purple Jacob’s ladder flowers and buds. Source: nordique

Jacob’s ladder plant can be propagated from seeds or by division. Limited attempts at cuttings may also work, but fail more often than they succeed.

Seeds should be sown directly into the soil after the risk of frost has passed in the spring. Cover them with a light dusting of soil and keep them moist until seedlings appear. Thin to 18″ apart. Your plants produce lots of foliage in their first year, and may not flower until subsequent years.

If you wish, you can allow your plant to go to seed, as it will readily self-seed its area. It comes back in a much denser distribution over time, and you may want to divide the plants later.

To divide your plants, carefully dig the plant out of the ground being especially careful not to damage its roots. Gently separate the rosette-like bases of the plant, teasing apart the root system. If necessary, you can cut especially entangled roots.

Replant your plants in freshly-prepared soil and water them in thoroughly. Even if you don’t opt to divide your plants for propagation purposes and don’t allow them to self-seed, division should happen every 3-4 years. This ensures your plant has room to grow and develop.

Repotting

Jacob's ladder flower cluster
A cluster of Jacob’s ladder flowers at the top of its flower stalk. Source: Ian Keith

Much as described in the propagation section, you will carefully remove your plant from its existing soil, being sure not to damage the root system. Replant at the same height the plant was initially planted. If there are multiple bases, you might want to divide them up at this time.

Pruning

Your Jacob’s ladder plant actually has very minimal maintenance required. The majority of it is aesthetic in nature!

If your plant is starting to get a bit leggy, you may wish to trim back excessive growth just to keep it more evened up and visually appealing.

When deadheading spent flowers, cut the stalks to the base of the plant. Simply wait for the flowers to fade first. This encourages them to rebloom if the weather conditions are good for producing flowers.

Older plants may develop browned or beat-up, ragged looking foliage towards the end of the summer months. You can simply prune out all of the damaged material, allowing the plant to fill back in with new growth.

Jacob’s Ladder Plant Problems

Most pests don’t seem very attracted to Jacob’s ladder, but there are a few. Diseases also aren’t super-common but can happen. Here’s some tips to help you if any problems arise!

Growing Problems

Jacob's ladder flower cluster unopened
An unopened flower cluster on a Jacob’s ladder plant. Source: cricketsblog

As mentioned before, too much direct sunlight can cause foliage to get sunburned.  It’s not a bad idea to test the future location of your plant by placing a potted one in the location where you’re considering a permanent placement, and seeing how it does there. If it’s good, plant away!

Too little water can cause the tips of the leaves to turn brown and crispy. While Jacob’s ladder plant is surprisingly drought-tolerant once established, younger plants often experience this problem when underwatered. Stay consistent in your soil moisture.

As the heat of the summer reaches its peak, you may find that the foliage of your plant becomes less attractive. This is especially true if you’re growing in a hotter climate than zone 8. By the end of the summer it may be leggy and browned in patches, requiring light pruning.

Pests

There are a very limited number of pests that seem to attack Jacob’s ladder plant. In fact, it’s deer-resistant and tends to be pest-resistant overall! But there are a few things which may find it to be tasty.

Leaf miners may come to visit. These little pests will chew lines through the leaves of your plant, and while the leaves of Jacob’s ladder are smaller than other types of foliage, it doesn’t stop them from making a quick meal on your plant.

With these, it can be difficult to wipe them out. However, you can opt to repel them initially by regularly spraying all leaf surfaces with neem oil to keep the pests at bay. Introducing beneficial nematodes to your soil can help with killing off pupating adults.

Slugs are notorious for snacking on Jacob’s ladder, and they too can be difficult to stop. Use a bait such as Garden Safe Slug & Snail Bait to lure these pests away from your plants and poison them.

Finally, there are two animals that are enticed closer by this plant. Cats are especially attracted to younger plants, as they smell similar to catmint. In addition, groundhogs find the foliage absolutely delectable.

These two pests can be harder to repel than normal pests as they’re persistent. However, putting a wire cloche over your plant should deter them, as can a floating row cover. As your flowers also draw pollinators, a floating row cover is a temporary solution at best.

Diseases

Blue jacob's ladder flower
Blue Jacob’s ladder flowers. Source: andrewhallpics

Much like insects, very few diseases are likely to strike your Jacob’s ladder plants. However, there are two which are fairly common.

Some fungal leaf spot conditions may persist in more humid conditions. While these are generally not likely to kill your plant, they can make it hard for the plant to produce chlorophyll, which can slow its growth. Use Monterey Liqui-Cop or another copper fungicide on these.

By and large, the most common disease for Jacob’s ladder is powdery mildew. This is also caused by moisture or humidity building up on the leaves and causing the right conditions for fungal growth. Neem oil is a great way to treat this condition and prevent further development.

In both fungal leaf spot or powdery mildew situations, you may be able to carefully remove the affected foliage and throw it out, preventing spread. But if it’s advanced beyond just a few early spots, it’s best to treat the problem rather than simply remove it.


Growing Jacob’s ladder plant is easy and rewarding, and best of all, you can grow it in your shadier spots to provide bright color there! Do you have a favorite cultivar of Jacob’s ladder? Let me know in the comment section!

Jacob's ladder plant is an easy to grow, shade loving perennial. Learn about the best ways to care for this plant with our growing guide!
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