(Oxalis violacea) Wood-sorrel family

Flowers - Pinkish purple, lavender, or pale magenta; less than 1

in. long; borne on slender stems in umbels or forking clusters,

each containing from 3 to 12 flowers. Calyx of 5 obtuse sepals; 5

petals; 10 (5 longer, 5 shorter) stamens; 5 styles persistent

above 5-celled ovary. Stem: From brownish, scaly bulb 4 to 9 in.

high. Leaves: About 1 in. wide, compounded of 3 rounded,

clover-like leaflets with prominent midrib, borne at end of

slender petioles, springing from root.

Preferred Habitat - Rocky and sandy woods.

Flowering Season - May-June.

Distribution - Northern United States to Rocky Mountains, south

to Florida and New Mexico; more abundant southward.

Beauty of Leaf and blossom is not the only attraction possessed

by this charming little plant. As a family the wood-sorrels have

great interest for botanists since Darwin devoted such exhaustive

study to their power of movement, and many other scientists have

described the several forms assumed by perfect flowers of the

same species to secure cross-fertilization. Some members of the

clan also bear blind flowers, which have been described in the

account of the white wood-sorrel given above. Even the

rudimentary leaves of the seedlings "go to sleep" at evening, and

during the day are in constant movement up and down. The stems,

too, are restless; and as for the mature leaves, every child

knows how they droop their three leaflets back to back against

the stem at evening, elevating them to the perfect horizontal

again by day. Extreme sensitiveness to light has been thought to

be the true explanation of so much activity, and yet this is not

a satisfactory theory in many cases. It is certain that drooping

leaves suffer far less from frost than those whose upper surfaces

are flatly exposed to the zenith. This view that the sleep of

leaves saves them from being chilled at night by radiation is

Darwin's own, supported by innumerable experiments; and probably

it would have been advanced by Linnaeus, too, since so many of

his observations in "Somnus Plantarum" verify the theory, had the

principle of radiation been discovered in his day.

The violet wood-sorrel produces two sorts of perfect flowers

reciprocally adapted to each other, but on different plants in

the same neighborhood. The two are essentially alike, except in

arrangement of stamens and pistil; one flower having high anthers

and low stigmas, the other having lower anthers and higher

stigmas; and as the high stigmas are fertile only when pollenized

with grains from a flower having high anthers, it is evident

insect aid to transfer pollen is indispensable here. Small bees,

which visit these blossoms abundantly, are their benefactors;

although there is nothing to prevent pollen from falling on the

stigmas of the short-styled form. Hildebrand proved that

productiveness is greatest, or exists only, after legitimate

fertilization. To accomplish cross-pollination, many plants bear

flowers of opposite sexes on different individuals; but the

violet wood-sorrel's plan, utilized by the bluet and

partridge-vine also, has the advantage in that both kinds of its

flowers are fruitful.


(Polygala viridescens; P. sanguinca of Gray) Milkwort family

Flowers - Numerous, very small, variable; bright magenta, pink,

or almost red, or pale to whiteness, or greenish, clustered in a

globular clover-like head, gradually lengthening to a cylindric

spike. Stem: 6 to 15 in. high, smooth, branched above, leafy.

Leaves: Alternate, narrowly oblong, entire.

Preferred Habitat - Fields and meadows, moist or sandy.

Flowering Season - June-September.

Distribution - Southern Canada to North Carolina, westward to the


When these bright clover-like heads and the inconspicuous

greenish ones grow together, the difference between them is so

striking it is no wonder Linnaeus thought they were borne by two

distinct species, sanguinea and viridescens, whereas they are now

known to be merely two forms of the same flower. At first glance

one might mistake the irregular little blossom for a member of

the pea family; two of the five very unequal sepals - not petals

- are colored wings. These bright-hued calyx-parts overlap around

the flower-head like tiles on a roof. Within each pair of wings

are three petals united into a tube, split on the back, to expose

the vital organs to contact with the bee, the milkwort's best


Plants of this genus were named polygala, the Greek for much

milk, not because they have milky juice - for it is bitter and

clear - but because feeding on them is supposed to increase the

flow of cattle's milk.

In sandy swamps, especially near the coast from Maine to the

Gulf, and westward to the Mississippi, grows the MARSH or

CROSS-LEAVED MILKWORT (P. cruciata). Most of its leaves,

especially the lower ones, are in whorls of four, and from July

to September its dense, bright purple-pink, white, or greenish

flower-heads, the wings awn-pointed, are seated on the ends of

the square branching stem of this low, mossy little plant.


(Polygala paucifolia) Milkwort family

Flowers - Purplish rose, rarely white, showy, over 1/2 in. long,

from 1 to 4 on short, slender peduncles from among upper leaves.

Calyx of 5 unequal sepals, of which 2 are wing-like and highly

colored like petals. Corolla irregular, its crest finely fringed;

6 stamens; pistil. Also pale, pouch-like, cleistogamous flowers

underground. Stem: Prostrate, 6 to 15 in. long, slender, from

creeping rootstock, sending up flowering shoots 4 to 7 in. high.

Leaves: Clustered at summit, oblong, or pointed egg-shaped, 1 1/2

in. long or less; those on lower part of shoots scale-like.

Preferred habitat - Moist, rich woods, pine lands, light soil.

Flowering Season - May-July.

Distribution - Northern Canada, southward and westward to Georgia

and Illinois.

Gay companies of these charming, bright little blossoms hidden

away in the woods suggest a swarm of tiny mauve butterflies that

have settled among the wintergreen leaves. Unlike the common

milkwort and many of its kin that grow in clover-like heads, each

one of the gay wings has beauty enough to stand alone, Its oddity

of structure, its lovely color and enticing fringe, lead one to

suspect it of extraordinary desire to woo some insect that will

carry its pollen from blossom to blossom and so enable the plant

to produce cross-fertilized seed to counteract the evil

tendencies resulting from the more prolific self-fertilized

cleistogamous flowers buried in the ground below. It has been

said that the fringed polygala keeps "one flower for beauty and

one for use"; "one playful flower for the world, another for

serious use and posterity"; but surely the showy flowers, the

"giddy sisters," borne by all cleistogamous species to save them

from degenerating through close inbreeding, are no idle,

irresponsible beauties. Let us watch a bumblebee as she alights

on the convenient fringe which edges the lower petal of this

milkwort. Now the weight of her body so depresses the keel, or

tubular petals, wherein the stamens and pistil lie protected from

the rain and useless insects, that as soon as it is pressed

downward a spoon-tipped pistil pushes out the pollen through the

slit on the top on the bee's abdomen. The stigmatic surface of

the pistil is on the opposite side of the spoon, nearest the base

of the flower, to guard against self-pollination. After the

pollen has been removed, a bumblebee, already dusted from other

blossoms, must leave some on the stigma as she sucks the nectar.

Indeed, every feature possessed by this pretty flower has been

developed for the most serious purpose of life - the salvation of

the species.

Only locally common throughout a wide area, embracing the eastern

half of the United States and Canada, is the RACEMED MILKWORT (P.

polygama), whose small, purple-pink, but showy flowers, clustered

along the upper part of numerous leafy stems, are found in dry

soil during June and July. Like the fringed milkwort, this one

bears many cleistogamous, or blind flowers, on underground

branches, flowers that always set an abundance of fertile

self-planted seed in case of failure to form any on the part of

their showy sisters, which are utterly dependent upon the bee's

ministrations. During prolonged stormy weather few insects are


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