This is a small family of herbs with opposite leaves and perfect but irregular flowers.
A. Fringed Polygala. Polygala paucifolia.
B. Milkwort. Polygala polygama.
Fringed Polygala (Polygala Paucifolia) is a dainty and low perennial, usually rising but four or five inches from the ground; the stem bends sharply as it enters the soil and continues into a long, slender rootstalk often a foot in length. A few broad, ovate, pointed, shining, bright green leaves are crowded along the stem near its top and one or two tiny ones, resembling scales, clasp the stem lower down. Either one or two flowers are at the summit of the stem; they are quite large, being nearly an inch in length; the two lateral sepals are large and wing-shaped (one of the common local names for this species is "Bird-on-the-Wing" because of the fancied resemblance to a bird in flight); the three petals are joined together to form a tube, through which the yellow stamens and pistil protrude; the two spreading sepals are crimson pink and the petals are lighter or white, the lower one being fringed or bearded. This Polygala is common in damp, rich woods from N. S. to Manitoba and southwards to the Gulf, flowering during May and June. It is largely dependent upon the honeybee for fertilization.
Milkwort (Polygata Polygama) is a slender-stemmed species from five to fifteen inches high; the stem is closely crowded, alternately, with narrow, oval, pointed, stemless leaves. The dull crimson flowers are borne in long, slender racemes at the top of the stem. Many, usually simple, stems grow from the biennial root; sometimes they have a single branch near the top. It also bears cleistogamous flowers on subterranean shoots; it is from these that it gets its specific name of polygama. It is quite common everywhere in dry sandy soil.
B. Cross-leaved Milkwort.
Field Or Purple Milkwort (Polygala San-Guinea) is a sturdy little pink-headed plant that grows in fields or meadows or along roadsides, often in company with Hop Clover; it is a strange fact that the flower heads of these very different species should be shaped so nearly alike. The slender, erect, wiry stems are very leafy and slightly branched at the top. A single round or cylindrical flowerhead terminates each branch, and others may be on slender peduncles from the angles of the upper leaves.
The flowers, proper, are concealed beneath the large, broad, scale-like, crimson-pink sepals that tightly overlap each other and form the head; these scalelike sepals correspond to the wings on the Fringed Polygala, the true petals and minutely crested keel being shorter and not visible from the outside. The small, stiff, acutely-pointed leaves are densely alternated on the stem up to the flower head. The plant grows from 6 to 12 inches high, and abounds throughout the U. S.
Cross-Leaved Milkwort (Polygala Cruciata) has spatulate-shaped leaves arranged in fours around the stem, - cross-like. The stem is quite branchy, and grows from 4 to 14 inches high. At the end of each branch, seated within the four terminating leaves, is a dainty little, globular, pink flower-head. Its construction is more open than that of the preceding species; the pink, sharply-pointed sepals do not hug closely together, but are -slightly spread so that the tiny petals and stamens may be seen. The little heads bear considerable resemblance to tiny Red Clover blossoms.
We find this species around the edges of swamps or in rather moist fields, from Me. to Minn, and southwards to the Gulf of Mexico. Both this species and the last have a long period of bloom; we may find their flowers from June until September.