Pictured above: Orange milkwort (Polygala lutea) by Eleanor Dietrich. Click on terms for botanical definitions. View post as a PDF.
Orange milkwort (Polygala lutea) is a short but showy wildflower found in bogs, savannas, pine flatwoods and roadside ditches throughout Florida. It typically blooms March through November, but can bloom year-round. Its flowers are self-pollinating. Its seeds are spread almost exclusively by ants. The seeds contain elaisomes — fleshy, oil- and protein-rich structures. Ants collect the seeds and take them to their nest where they and their larva consume the elaisomes, but leave the seed intact. The seeds are then tossed from the nest into favorable germinating conditions.
Orange milkwort’s bright orange flowers have three petals and five sepals. They are born in compact, thimble-shaped racemes atop long (1–2 inch) pedicels. Individual flowers are often indiscernible without magnification. Flowerheads are subtended by bracts. Basal leaves are thick, simple and spatulate with entire margins. Stem leaves are similar in shape, but smaller in size, becoming reduced as they ascend. Leaf arrangement is alternate. Fruit is a capsule. Roots have a minty aroma.
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). The species name lutea is from the Latin luteum or “yellow,” and refers to the flower’s color when dried.
Like other species of Polygala, Orange milkwort is sometimes referred to as bachelor’s buttons.
Family: Polygalaceae (Milkwort family)
Native range: Nearly throughout
To see where natural populations of Orange milkwort have been vouchered, visit florida.plantatlas.usf.edu.
Hardiness: Zones 8A–10B
Soil: Moist to wet, acidic sandy soils
Exposure: Full sun to high pine shade
Growth habit: 3–8” tall
Garden tips: Orange milkwort is rarely available commercially. It is easy to establish from seed, but difficult to transplant due to its strong taproot.
For more information on other Polygala species, see these resources: