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Milkwort Family

( Originally Published 1922 )



Fringed Milkwort or Polygala; Flowering Wintergreen;

Gay Wings

Polygala paucifolia

Flowers—Purplish rose, rarely white, showy, over 1/2 in. long, from 1 to 4 on short, slender peduncles from among upper leaves. Calyx of 5 unequal sepals, of which are wing-like and highly colored like petals. Corolla irregular, its crest finely fringed; 6 stamens; 1 pistil. Also pale, pouch-like, cleistogamous flowers under-ground. Stem: Prostrate, 6 to 15 in. long, slender, from creeping rootstock, sending up flowering shoots 4 to 7 in. high. Leaves: Clustered at summit, oblong, or pointed egg-shaped, 1 1/2 in. long or less; those on lower part of shoots scale-like.

Preferred Habitat—Moist, rich woods, pine lands, light soil.

Flowering Season—May—July.

Distribution—Northern Canada, southward and west-ward to Georgia and Illinois.

Gay companies of these charming, bright little blossoms hidden away in the woods suggest a swarm of tiny mauve butterflies that have settled among the wintergreen leaves. Unlike the common milkwort and many of its kin that grow in cloverlike heads, each one of the gay wings has beauty enough to stand alone. Its oddity of structure, its lovely color and enticing fringe, lead one to suspect it of extraordinary desire to woo some insect that will carry its pollen from blossom to blossom and so enable the plant to produce cross-fertilized seed to counteract the evil tendencies resulting from the more prolific self-fertilized cleistogamous flowers buried in the ground below.

Common, Field, or Purple Milkwort; Purple Polygala

Polygala sanguinea (P. viridescens)

Flowers—Numerous, very small, variable; bright magenta pink, or almost red, or pale to whiteness, or greenish, clustered in a globular clover-like head, gradually lengthening to a cylindric spike. Stern: 6 to 15 in. high, smooth, branched above, leafy. Leaves: Alternate, narrowly oblong, entire.

Preferred Habitat—Fields and meadows, moist or sandy. Flowering Season—June—September. Distribution—Southern Canada to North Carolina, westward to the Mississippi.

When these bright clover-like heads and the inconspicuous greenish ones grow together, the difference between them is so striking it is no wonder Linnaeus thought they were borne by two distinct species, Sanguinea and viridescens, whereas they are now known to be merely two forms of the same flower. At first glance one might mistake the irregular little blossom for a member of the pea family; two of the five very unequal sepals—not petals—are colored wings. These bright-hued calyx-parts over-lap around the flower-head like tiles .on a roof. Within each pair of wings are three petals united into a tube, split on the back, to expose the vital organs to contact with the bee, the milkwort's best friend.

Plants of this genus were named polygala, the Greek for much milk, not because they have milky juice—for it is bitter and clear—but because feeding on them is supposed to increase the flow of cattle's milk.



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