Taking Flight

“Wings,” I thought, zooming in on a not-too-clear picture of tiny purple flowers. Those little flowers look like birds about to take off. Could this plant be in the pea family (Fabaceae)?



It does look a little like redbud (Cercis canadensis).




Or naked-flower tick-trefoil (Hylodesmum nudiflorum).




But just a little. And the leaves are all wrong for something fabaceous. Orchid? The flower is a little orchid-like, but the plant just doesn’t look orchidy.



So for the first time in many months I opened Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide and used the keys to identify it. And then I went back to the site to get better pictures.



It’s Polygala polygama, commonly known as racemed milkwort, bitter milkwort, and purple milkwort.




Petaloid sepals, often called wings, are characteristic of flowers in the Polygalaceae. Typically the flowers have three petals and five sepals. The petals are fused, and the lower one is called the keel (as it is in fabaceous flowers), and it’s frequently fringed or lobed. Three of the five sepals look more or less like typical sepals, while two lateral ones are more petal-shaped and colored.

index finger for size

Racemed milkwort is a short biennial forb that likes full sun and sandy soils. The flowers are no more than a quarter inch across. It’s native to eastern North America, where it grows in scattered populations in the South and Mid-Atlantic; it’s more common in the upper Midwest and New England. The Maryland Biodiversity Project has records for it in Allegany, Washington, Montgomery, Prince Georges, and Charles counties. The Maryland DNR lists it as S1 (highly state rare) and threatened. It’s also threatened in Kentucky and Ohio, and endangered in Iowa and Pennsylvania.

This species is one of eleven milkworts found in Maryland. All are native, and most are found only in the coastal plain.

Got Milkwort?

And now back to my finds in Serpentine Barrens Conservation Park.


purple milkwort, field milkwort
Polygala sanguinea

This intriguing small annual grows in moist to dry soils in sunny or partly shady sites. It’s often unbranched, with slender leaves and a tight raceme of flowers that is so dense it appears at first to be a single flower.

In Maryland purple milkwort is found in parts of the Coastal Plain, Piedmont, and Appalachian Plateau. It’s also fairly widespread in eastern North America, occurring in Quebec and Ontario, New England, the mid-Atlantic, the midwest, some parts of the deep South, and into the eastern parts of the Great Plains. There are no conservation issues.


There are about three dozen species of Polygala in various parts of the US, most with rather limited ranges.  P. sanguinea is one of the most widespread. Thirteen of these species are in Maryland, most of them in the coastal plain.

The genus name Polygala is from two Greek words meaning “many” and “milk” – there was a belief that cows grazing on pasture with Polygala species would produce more milk. Probably that’s the reason for the common name “milkwort”, too. (“Wort” is a Middle English word meaning “plant”.) The specific epithet sanguinea is a reference to blood, but I’m not sure why; possibly because of the color of the flowers?