Pictured above: Lewton’s milkwort (Polygala lewtonii) by Craig Mazer. Click on terms for botanical definitions. View post as a PDF.
Lewton’s milkwort is an endangered wildflower endemic to only six counties in Central Florida. It occurs in scrub, sandhill and pine barren habitats where maintenance includes a regular fire regime. It blooms in late winter and spring, attracting a variety of pollinators, especially leafcutter bees, hover flies and bee flies.
Lewton’s milkwort produces open-pollinated flowers as well as two types of self-pollinating flowers — one occurs above-ground and the other underground. The open-pollinated (chasmogamous) flowers are the most noticeable. They are small, dark pink and born on loose, many-flowered terminal spikes. These flowers have three pink winglike sepals and three fringed petals. The petals are fused and form a keel. The above-ground self-pollinating (cleistogamous) flowers are tiny, green and occur in the leaf axils. The underground flowers have no pigment and are born on few-flowered racemes. Leaves are small (up to ½-inch long), linear to spatulate in shape, and succulent. They are alternately arranged. Fruits are oblong capsules, each containing two seeds. Each seed has a hairlike appendage that attracts ants, which help disperse the seeds. The plant has a long taproot that helps protect it during fire occurrence.
The name Polygala comes from the Greek polys, which means “many or much,” and gala, which means “milk.” It is so-named because it was once believed that the presence of Polygala species in cow fields would result in higher milk production (hence the common name of “milkwort” for both the genus and family.)
Family: Polygalaceae (Milkwort family)
Native range: Marion, Lake, Polk, Osceola, Brevard and Highlands counties
To see where natural populations of Lewton’s milkwort have been vouchered, visit florida.plantatlas.usf.edu.
Hardiness: Zones 9A–10B
Soil: Dry, sandy soils
Exposure: Full sun
Growth habit: up to 12” tall
Gardening tips: Lewton’s milkwort is not commercially available. Find it in its natural habitat.
For more information on other Polygala species, see these resources: