Senega Boot, it was called in the early days of our country, when the pioneers pushing west of the Alleghenies sought plants for home remedies to cure all the ailments besetting mankind. It was believed faithfully by many that there was a plant which would cure each disease, if the right one could be found to treat the disease in question. Polygala, or Seneca snakeroot, was one whose hard, knotty rootstock was gathered and used medicinally in many a home on the Illinois prairie.
Polygala senega L.
The Polygalas were given their name, which means "much milk", in the belief that cows which ate the plants produced more milk. The name originally came from that given by the old botanist of Greece, Dioscorides, who labored under many current delusions of the day but sought earnestly to learn the truth about Nature and its manifestations.
The Polygalas are among the most varied flower clans to be found. Not an extensive group - eight species are listed in Jones's Flora of Illinois - they nevertheless range from extremely showy flowers to some which are dull, small, and uninteresting. Most beautiful of all and one of the most exquisite of wild flowers is the fringed polygala or gaywings; it is believed to be entirely absent from Illinois, but is common in late spring in northern forests.
In extreme contrast are the thin, sparsely flowered spikes of Seneca snakeroot, with tiny greenish white flowers and small, narrow leaves.