(Polygala means “much milk.”)
Halpatioke Regional Park near Stuart, Florida, was the venue today where John and I encountered a WWII Vet (repeat: WWII, do the math on your cell phone calculator) out alone with canteen on his belt and armed with one of those grabber tools cleaning up litter. Some folks have a sense of purpose.
We also encountered scattered members of the genus Polygala. Polygala is one heck of a genus…a few hundred species around the world, twenty-some in Florida, several in our general area. You could scarcely find a more variable and more colorful plant group, our local rainbow including orange, yellow, violet, and white blossoms. The flowers can be single, or in branched candelabras, or in congested heads or spikes. The plants can be an inch tall, or three feet. (In other regions they can be big and woody.)
That kind of color and variation remind you of any other plant group? Methinks Orchids, and the flowers do have features in common with Orchids, including extreme bilateral symmetry, similar overall shapes, often a decorated or complex “lower lip,” and precision pollination. At least one species of Polygala reportedly forces the pollinator to enter a tunnel and scrape inward past the pollen-receptive stigma, and then to exit via a different tunnel, brushing over the pollen-producing anthers. That would not be dismaying in an Orchid, but Polygalas are completely unrelated.
Polygala fruits and seeds have odd features. Most have furry seeds. I don’t know why but a guess is protection from the ants usually responsible for seed dispersal. Most Polygala species offer a food packet on the tip of the seed. Ants drag the seeds with benefits back to their nests for lunch, and maybe the hairy coat deters overzealous munching. Some species have no ant help, and have the seed hairs modified into hooked VELCRO, apparently snagging fur or feathers of passing creatures. Additionally, some species have thin wafery wings on the fruits, suggesting a role for wind in relocation. Most or all of our local species seem to be ant-dispersed.
Because the genus is beautiful, and has historical virtues, and is in Europe, let’s see what they thought of it in Merry Olde England. Well, how handy, I have a reprint copy of Gerard’s 1636 Herbal at my elbow. Now read together from Gerard:
I always assumed the modern name “Procession Flower” for our Polygala incarnata to reference the inflorescence blossoming over time into a “procession” of individual flowers, but, looky there, Gerard already had the name in the air centuries ago with an entirely different meaning.
Speaking or processions, Rogation is the Christian celebration immediately before the Ascension, traditionally observed with processions, apparently enhanced in Gerard’s world with garlands and “nosgaies.” Wouldn’t Rogation time be soon, with the Polygalas here in Florida on schedule?
These are bioactive plants, some having wintergreen essence in the roots. Being worldwide and conspicuous, no surprise they have a catalog of historical medicinal uses, too many to probe here, and not that interesting. Except for one,” procuring milke in the brests of nurses.” That would explain the common name we really use for Polygalas nowadays, milkworts. I love the sources that say the name has to do with cows in pastures, yea, sure, a pre-GMO BST. In fact, Gerard goes on to say milkworts to promote lactation date back into ancient times. Does it work? I do not know. But I do know it contains poisons procuring vomit.
So don’t eat the milkworts, just head out anywhere open and moist, and seek out the color. To quote Gerard one last time, ”these plants or milk-worts grow commonly in every wood or fertile pasture whereforever I have travelled.”