The Milkwort (Polygalaceae) is a family of plants known for its milky sap and striking clover-like flowers. The first species to bloom in the Pine Barrens in the spring is the Orange Milkwort (Polygala lutea) whose flower can be seen as early as June. The first time I saw one as a child, I actually thought it was an orange clover. There are two other species with a more clover-like pink flower – the Short-leafed Milkwort (Polygala brevifolia) and the Cross-leafed Milkwort (Polygala cruciata).
The pink family members usually begin to bloom in July, but all can persist in their colorful displays until October. They can be found blooming along sandy roads or in open bogs.
All Milkwort has narrow, linear leaves, but in differing arrangements. The orange family can have alternate leaves, but more often has leaves in rosettes at the base of the main stem. The short-leafed cousin has shorter leaves in whorls of up to five. The third in the trio, the cross-leafed species, has leaves in groups of four, forming a cross for which it’s named. It’s leaves are decidedly longer.
Because of an old botanical belief that function follows form, at one time it was believed that the plant caused dairy cows to produce more milk if they ate it. In this case, the “milk” of the plant caused cows to produce more milk.
An alternate name for the Milkwort is Candy Root because the root is reputed to have a wintergreen-like flavor. I’ve never verified this because I could never bring myself to pull such jewels of nature up by the roots.