This section is from the book "The Native Flowers And Ferns Of The United States ", by Thomas Meehan. Also available from Amazon: The Native Flowers and Ferns of the United States in Their Botanical, Horticultural, And Popular Aspects.
Stem simple or with spreading branches; leaves lanceolate, acute, the lowest clustered, spatulate-obovate, obtuse; spikes dense, globose, or oblong; wings elliptical, abruptly pointed; lobes of the caruncle nearly as long as the obovate, sparse hairy seed. (Chapman's Flora of the Southern United States. See also Gray's Manual of the Botany of the Northern United States, and Wood's Class-Book of Botany.)
ONE of our text-books observes that this is a beautiful spe-cies, and another that it is a very showy one. Examined by the critical rules of art it would scarcely be called beautiful, nor is it particularly showy, and yet it must be conceded to have good personal attractions. What might have been stately in its character, with more development, ended in stiffness; and variety, which gives a charm when other more solid graces are wanting-, is almost absent here. We have leaves of an almost uniform tint of green, with little variation in outline, and without even a little wavy edge, which some heavy leaves have to lighten them. There is the short stem, as straight as if set up by rule, and of the same shade of green as the leaves. The orange-yellow color of the flower is the single redeeming feature of the whole, for the head is destitute of all beauty in its outline. All that can be said in its favor in this respect is that it harmonizes in this hardness with all the other lines. It has been called Yellow Bachelor's Button in the South; and if the bachelor's life is to be looked on as one typical of loneliness, there may be some appropriateness, considering how few of the elements of the enjoyable we find in this plant. But if not in itself beautiful, it has the trait which is so often found in homely things, of lending a charm to the surroundings and rendering them lovable. There are few plants which seem to have so great a power of aiding the beauty of a piece of wild scenery as our yellow milk-wort. It is a rare color among our wild flowers, and it gives a peculiar richness to all the rest.
The genus to which it belongs is a very old one, a European species having been known as Polygala for many centuries. The particular species is P. vulgaris, and grows over most of Europe. The name is from the Greek polys much, and gala milk, and hence we have the common English name of milk-wort. Au-thors do not seem to have been as careful to be right in matters of history as in most other matters connected with plants, and so we frequently have contradictions which must often puzzle the young student who desires to be accurate in all things. Thus in the derivation of Polygala, some authors, as old Gerarde for instance, tell us it was so called because it causes an increase of the milk in the breasts of nurses; and others, as in most of our modern text-books, that it helps the yield of milk in the cattle that feed on it. Others say it is because some of the species abound in a milky juice. Dr. Asa Gray, in "School Botany," observes on this: "but the plants have no milky juice at all." Then again Dr. M. T. Masters tells us: "Some of the milk-worts moreover abound in milky juice at the roots, but the name is in all probability derived from the increase which it gives to the lacteal secretions of cows." In ancient times it had some religious associations. The hermits in the European Alps always carefully planted it round their habitations. In Catholic countries the three days before Easter Sunday are called rogation days, and are marked by public religious ceremonies; and Mrs. Paterson notes in her "Folk-Lore" that in the processions on these days bunches of the milk-wort were carried, and hence it is known in these places as "Rogation-flower." Rogation days, coming in Passion week, made it also sought after for Passion ceremonies, and known as "Passion-flower."
Polygala lutea, the species we now describe, has not the fortune of the European species in boasting- of much popular history. As already noted, it is known in the South as "Yellow-Bachelor's Button," from its great resemblance in form to the Gomphrena globosa, the Bachelor's Button of gardens; but as there is a yellow, as well as a white and purple of this, it seems best to try to keep yellow milk-wort for a distinctive popular name. The roots have a pleasant aromatic flavor, very like that of Gaultheria procumbens, the "Tea-Berry" of New Jersey, and among which the Polygala grows. Some of the species have achieved remarkable medical celebrity, but nothing especial is recorded of this particular one.
The genus Polygala will always have an interest to the botanical student, from the remarkable structure of its flower. The parts of all flowers were primordially leaves, that is to say, what might, under some circumstances, have been leaves have become parts of the inflorescence. The transition from leaves to floral parts is always marked by a more rapid coiling of the spiral growth which exists in all plants; but with this rapid coiling up comes growth waves which have varying rhythmic intensities, and by which each wave is distinctly marked. In plants allied to Polygala, five of these primordial leaves would be caught in the wave of growth before comparatively resting, and these would then form a calyx whorl of five divisions. The next wave, with the same scope, should arrest five more primordial leaves; and the force, having less intensity, would result in five colored divisions of a corolla. But in the case of Polygala, the growth wave seems to have caught but three primordial leaves to form a calyx, leaving two of the usual number to be affected by the next wave, and thus we have two of what usually would have been calyx segments acting as part of the corolla. In our Fig. 2 we have given a back view of a flower, showing the two enlarged divisions and two of the three small ones, the other being in front. Having traced the typical and the actual flower thus far, the student will look for the next whorl of five, which should form the five petals, but so far two of these have not been traced. The remainder of the corolla seems to be formed of only three pieces, and which, in some allied orders, would be separate, but here they become united. Whether in this unusual condition for plants in this ordinal connection, the other two have remained wholly undeveloped or have been really made to form a part of what appears to be but a trimerous corolla is not yet known, and the hope of getting a clue to this may give some zest to teratological studies in this direction.
Polygala gives the name to the whole order Polygalaceae, and furnishes the greater part of the species. Some of them are found in most of the temperate portions of the globe. Our yellow milk-wort is very common in New Jersey, and from thence south to Florida, but has not found its way far to the west, except in the latitude of Arkansas, in which State it reaches its western boundary. So far as we can ascertain it has not even been found in Ohio.
It does not take well to cultivation. It is included in some catalogues of botanic gardens as having been cultivated in Eng--land at different dates, but it is rarely seen there now.
1. A plant from New Jersey of average size.
2. Back view of a flower somewhat enlarged.
3. Front view.