Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Graceful, no?

Everyone loves orchids, and our gardens are chockablock full of all manner of daylilies, hostas, penstemons--you name it. But who cares about milkworts? Well...I do! If you Google image Polygala you will an astonishing range of treasures found throughout the Northern Hemisphere, with some of the most outlandish restricted in nature to South Africa. Only a very small number have made it securely into North Temperate gardens, notably the alpine Polygala chamaebuxus, which you may find in early summer in the Alps, usually in its yellow phase.

The lovely pink milkwort above is Polygala amoenissima, although I had a very similar plant once labeled P. amara--both originating in the Caucasus of Western Asia. This has proved to be a very vigorous, long lived plant in my rock gardens, producing a few welcome seedlings to expand the display. Its first flowers can appear in late April, and it continues to sport its little pink orchids through summer and into the fall: quite a display for any plant.

I grew this blue gem for several years as Polygala vulgaris, although a simlar species (Polygala calcarea) is well established in British Gardens. Come to think of it, I remember that Betty Lowry found it to be almost a pest in Western Washington: I have yet to get a blue milkwort to persist for very long, although I have great hopes for Polygala hybrida, a taller kind I found everywhere in the Tian Shan last September. It has virtually the same habit and stature as the pink one above, only the flowers are always a brilliant sapphire blue.

I have seen so many tiny polygalas in Africa, and I've seen specimens of many more strange ones in Asia. I think this family still holds great promise, at least for rock gardens.
Who says all the best plants have been introduced?


  1. Polygalas are indeed wonderful, and seriously overlooked. Some of our eastern ones grow in wierd soils (swamps, sterile acid woodlands) which accounts for their lack in gardens. P. lutea is a really nice one, quite common in the coastal plain of the Carolinas. South Africa does have lots more of them in all sizes from mini creeping mats (saw a blue one in the Karoo, alas no seed) to big bushes. Took a while to figure out where the seeds are--in a flat pod hidden inside the about to fall bottom flowers of the inflorescence (tricky!).

  2. Don't you have another rather spiffy species in Colorado, Polygala subspinosa, as well? That one should grow in your garden with an assist from the garden hose.

  3. Ernie! I have often admired Polygala pauciflora in the East: I remember thick mats of it under hemlocks at Cornell and in the Green Mts. of Vermont. Wish we could replicate that! And Polygala subspinosa is one of my faves: here and there throughout canyonlands in May. There is a spectacular ecotype in the four corners that may be a separate species...these have eluded me. I found a spiny pink-flowered polygala on the karoo once that was its spittin' image...long live the steppe flora!

  4. What are the chances that any of the more than 10 species of Karoo polygala are hardy in Zone 5>
    Keep on Steppin!

  5. I see that at least one of the Karoo polygalas has become a weed in Australia and that some polygalas are large shrubs and trees - beautiful!

  6. Gladiolus caryophyllus is apparently a "weed" in Australia, although it is endangered in Africa. People bandy about "weed" and "invasive" a tad freely in my opinion. Wouldn't it be convenient if rare and endangered plants would prove easily grown somewhere else? Australia should be more nervous about the disastrous effects of sheep and humans before they have caniptions about so many plants! Weed are overwhelmingly nature's pioneers that try to heal human's depredations: you tell ME who the real culprits are!


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