This section is from the book "British Wild Flowers - In Their Natural Haunts Vol5-6", by A. R. Horwood. Also available from Amazon: A British Wild Flowers In Their Natural Haunts.
1. Milkwort (Polygala vulgaris, L.). 2. Grassy Stitchwort (Stellaria graminea, L.). 3. Pretty St. John's Wort Hypericum pulchrum, L.). 4. Furze (Ulex europoeus, L.). 5. Broom (Cytisus scoparius, Link.). 6. Tormentil (Potentilla erecta, Hampe.).
Milkwort (Polygala vulgaris, L.)
Milkwort has never been found fossil. To-day it is met with in the Temperate and Arctic Zones in Arctic Europe, North Africa, Siberia, Western Asia. It is absent in Great Britain from North Devon, South Wilts, South Hants, Essex, Herts, Bedford, Stafford, Salop. In South Wales it is found only in Glamorgan and Brecon; in North Wales only in Carnarvon and Anglesey; in the Mersey province it is absent from Mid Lancs; it occurs in Durham; in the West Lowlands not in Renfrew or Lanark; in the East Highlands it is found only in Mid Perth, Forfar, South Aberdeen; in the West Highlands it does not occur in the Clyde Isles, Cantire, and not in the Orkneys. It ascends to 3000 ft. in the Highlands.
The Common Milkwort is a plant of the meadows and heaths, and always thrives best on high or rising ground; and though in the moist meadows of more lowland pastures laid to grass it luxuriates in a moist habitat along with Heath Bedstraw, Furze, and Broom, and the Harebell, yet as a rule it prefers, as do the majority of ericetal species, a dry atmosphere, even stony surfaces, and there it is undoubtedly xero-philous, or adapted to drought.
Milkwort has a trailing habit, very similar to the Rockrose, having numerous simple, unbranched stems, which are semi-erect, not ligneous or woody, as in the Rockrose. The leaves are distant, linear-lance-shaped, acute, the lower more oblong. It is thus a wiry plant with a semi-erect habit.
The flowers are deep-blue or pink, in terminal racemes, with sepals with branching veins and wings nearly as long as the corolla. The capsules are inversely heart-shaped and notched, the lobes being equal, the seeds with arils.
The plant is seldom 6 in. high, and is usually hidden away in the grass. It is in flower in May and June. The Milkwort is perennial, and can be propagated by division.
The flower has 5 sepals, the inner two petaloid, three small, linear, and the 2 alae large and coloured, making the flower conspicuous.
The corolla is tubular, the petals combined below with the staminal sheath, the median forming a hood, and inside are digitate processes on which an insect visitor is supported. The short stamens are attached to the tube in two groups, and bear hairs directed downwards. The pistil is in the middle, and bears a spoon-shaped stigma with a clammy stigmatic lobe bent downwards, which touches the proboscis when inserted and covers it with pollen. The short anthers lie in the concavity of the corolla just over the stigmatic lobe, shed pollen upon it, and withdraw to the side. The insect clings to the digitate processes. The visitors are Hymenoptera (Apidae), Lepidoptera, Polyommatus. Behind the hollows is a clammy disk which is thus touched by an insect searching for honey, and, being thus sticky, when the proboscis is withdrawn it carries away pollen to another flower, and there this is cleared off by the disk. When insects do not visit it the stigmatic lobe bends down, and self-pollination usually results.
Photo H. Irving - Milkwort (Polygala vulgaris, L.)
The fruit is dispersed by the agency of the wind. The capsules are flattened, notched and margined, and light, so that they can be blown by the wind, while the seeds are downy.
The Lepidoptera Penipelia palumbella, Prothymia viridaria feed on Milkwort.
The name Polygala, given by Dioscorides, from the Greek polus, much, gala, milk, was given in reference to a supposed property it had of increasing milk as a meadow plant, and the second (Latin) name in reference to its universal occurrence.
Milkwort is called Cross-flower, Four Sisters, Gang Flower, Procession Flower, Robin's Eye, Rogation Flower. Gerarde says it is called Milkwort on account of its "vertues in procuring milke in the brests of nurses". It was carried in processions on Rogation Days (hence names), and Gerarde says: "The maidens which use in the countries to walke the procession do make themselves garlands and nosegaies of the Milkwort".
It has been used to promote expectoration, as a bitter infusion it was used for coughs, and the root when powdered has been applied in cases of pleurisy. The plant is ornamental, and some varieties bloom in winter. Some are greenhouse plants, and all free-flowering and handsome in colouring.
Essential Specific Characters: 45. Polygala vulgaris, L. - Stem ascending, simple, leaves scattered, radical, smaller, oblong, upper linear-lanceolate, flowers blue, pink, white, in raceme, lower petal crested calyx wings with veins branched.