Pictured above: Candyroot (Polygala nana) by Mary Keim. Click on terms for botanical definitions. View post as a PDF.
Candyroot’s distinctive inflorescence is a compact, thimble-shaped raceme comprised of many tiny pale to lemon-yellow flowers. Leaves are thick, spatulate and curl slightly upright. They are mostly in basal rosettes. Stem leaves are few and alternately arranged. Stems are glabrous. Seeds are borne in capsules and dispersed primarily by ants.
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 nana is from the Greek nânos or “dwarf,” and refers to the plant’s small habit. The plant’s root has a licorice flavor when chewed, hence the common name “candyroot.” Like other species of Polygala, it is sometimes referred to as bachelor’s buttons.
Family: Polygalaceae (Milkwort family)
Native range: Nearly throughout
To see where natural populations of candyroot have been vouchered, visit florida.plantatlas.usf.edu.
Hardiness: Zones 8A–10B
Soil: Moist to wet well-drained soils
Exposure: Full sun to minimal shade
Growth habit: 3–6” tall
Garden tips: Despite candyroot’s common presence throughout the state, it is not commercially cultivated and does not persist in the landscape. Look for it in its natural setting.
For more information on other Polygala species, see these resources: