Growing Milkwort Flowers – Tips On Uses For Milkwort In Gardens
By: Bonnie L. Grant, Certified Urban Agriculturist
Wildflowers have a special place in my heart. Hiking or biking around the countryside in spring and summer can give you a whole new appreciation for the natural beauties of this world. Milkwort may not have the cutest name and it isn’t native to North America, but it is one of the stars of the show from summer to early fall in Europe. Milkwort wildflowers are perennial herbs that have a long history as a medicinal. Keeping reading to learn more about this interesting plant.
Milkwort Plant Info
Common milkwort is found in grasslands, heaths and dunes. It is a familiar sight in the landscape in Britain, Norway, Finland and other European countries. Polygala vulgaris is the plant’s scientific designation. The Greek polugalon means “to make much milk.” This describes the plant’s historic use as an aid to increase lactation in new mothers. There were many medicinal and religious uses for milkwort, some of which persist today.
Milkwort wildflowers are small plants, only 4 to 10 inches (10 to 25 cm.) in height. It produces many long downy stems that spring from a basal rosette. Flowers are generally deep to light blue but may also be white, purple and pink. Flowers have tiny petals flanked by a pair of flattened sepals that resemble petals. The overall bloom resembles a pea flower with its fused keel and tubular upper petals but is not related to the family.
The slender lance-shaped leaves are alternate along the stem and disappear from the lower plant during bloom time. Common milkwort is listed as endangered in Finland due to habitat loss. In its native regions, Milkwort is found in meadows, pastures, banks, and hummocks.
Growing Milkwort Flowers
Growing milkwort flowers from seed seems to be the best method of propagation. Seeds can be hard to come by, but some online retailers do carry them. Start seeds indoors before all danger of frost has passed or sow into a prepared bed after any frost is expected.
Keep seedlings moderately moist and use a diluted plant food once seedlings have 4 sets of true leaves. Milkwort performs well in either full or partial shade in well-drained soil. These plants are best in a mass of undulating wiry stems and sky blue flowers.
Plants can be cut back in late fall to within 6 inches of the ground. Mulch around them to protect the root zone from winter’s chill.
Milkwort leaves have been known to be used as a tea substitute. They are also added to green tea for flavoring. The herb contains triterpenoid saponins, which have the ability to break up mucous and treat respiratory ailments.
The plant is also listed as having diuretic properties and the ability to cause a recuperative sweat. This pretty little herb was also once gathered for certain Christian processions.
In the landscape, milkwort is an attractive addition to the perennial garden or in a cottage herb plot.
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Why You Need to Plant a Wildflower Garden
Just over a decade ago, Catherine Winter abandoned life as an art director in downtown Toronto and fled to a cabin in Quebec’s Laurentian mountains. She immersed herself in botany, permaculture, and herbalism, and now tends a thriving food forest and physic garden on her property. In addition to writing about plants for various websites and publications, Cate coordinates edible/medicinal gardening initiatives in disadvantaged communities in North America and the UK.
All those luscious fruit and vegetable plants we love to grow in our gardens need to be pollinated to produce what we call food. This, of course, requires insects such as bees, butterflies, wasps, moths, birds, and bats, depending on the plant species.
Fortunately, there’s a great way to attract beneficial pollinators to your yard, and that’s by planting a wildflower garden.
What Constitutes a “Wildflower”
The standard definition for “wildflower” is a type of flowering plant that grows without human intervention. As such, it might seem a bit weird to plant a wildflower garden intentionally.
Generally, however, indigenous wildflowers have been obliterated in most areas in favor of lawns and cultivated flower gardens. The last few generations have established (and helped nurture) the idea that some plants are far more beautiful, valuable, and genteel than others.
Wildflowers such as daisies, poppies, marigolds, and cornflowers (aka bachelor’s buttons) are considered “common.” Vulgar, even. They’ve been relegated to the lowest caste, solely fit for peasant posies and animal fodder.
In contrast, roses, peonies, irises, and delphiniums are considered elegant. These are desirable species that people have been cultivating to prove their social status.
In the simplest terms, the idea has been that if a species can grow well enough on its own, out in the country, then it’s too basic to grow in an upper-class garden.
The problem is that they’re not exactly beneficial to your food garden unless you live in a region where these “special” species grow indigenously.
Why are These Wild Species Important?
Wildflowers and the pollinators that fertilize them developed together over time. Let’s take the humble ox eye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare) as an example. Note that its binomial epithet is “vulgar,” meaning “common.” (Isn’t Latin fun?)
These flowers have been around for about 49 million years. As a result, local insect species such as bumblebees evolved alongside these flowers.
They learned how to use the daisies’ nectar most efficiently, and in turn, these blooms benefitted from insect care that matched their needs.
One of the species that L. vulgare attracts is the hoverfly (Syrphidae spp.).  You might not think much of these insects, but guess what? Their larvae feed pretty much exclusively on aphids.
Cucurbits like squashes and cucumbers, as well as leafy greens and beans, are incredibly vulnerable to aphid infestations. What do you think happens if you either plant ox eye daisies around these species or companion plant them in the garden?
Exactly. The flowers attract (and are pollinated by) adult hoverflies. These hoverflies also head over to those tasty cucumber flowers because, OH MY GRAVY, their nectar is delicious.
Hey, while there, why not deposit some eggs too? And oh look, those larvae will nom on aphids while they’re there.
Bonus: these daisies are members of the Asteraceae family. That means they’re related to echinacea, asters, cornflowers, fleabane, and sunflowers.
These generally attract similar insect species, so the aphid-eating hoverflies that love daisies should also appear on these blooms too.
(Just don’t cultivate sunflowers any place where they’ll shade out light-hungry plants. That’ll defeat your initiatives pretty fiercely.)
These Flowers Can Help Save Our Pollinators
There’s another reason to cultivate a wildflower garden that has a massive impact on your food garden’s success: saving native pollinators.
You may not be aware, but bee colony collapse is a MASSIVE issue worldwide. Decades of pesticide use by agricultural growers have all but obliterated native pollinator species.
They slathered chemicals all over edible plants to kill off the bugs that ate those species.
The problem is that these toxins kill indiscriminately. They don’t just target aphids or cane borers: they also destroy bumblebees, honeybees, butterflies, and well, millions of others.
Humans have poisoned these species’ food supplies and obliterated much of their habitat. As a result, it’s really up to us to step up and fix this problem.
There are huge initiatives around the world to help save these native pollinators. Greenpeace’s Save the Bees campaign is just one of them: a quick online search will undoubtedly give you info on projects near you.
As a bonus, many of these initiatives offer free native wildflower seeds. All you need to do is scatter them in a sunny patch and water them on occasion, and they’ll do their job.
They’ll feed native species and offer shelter for them to breed. This will increase their numbers. If enough people pitch in with these little efforts, we can help to stabilize these populations.
Remember: no pollinators = no plant fertilization. No fertilization = no food.
That’s how important they are.
If the bees disappear, so do we.
Which Species Should You Grow?
There’s a very simple answer to this question. The wildflower species you should grow in and around your property are those that are native to your area.
Each plant species has evolved over millions of years to grow specifically in a particular area. It has adapted to the soil and sun there and rain and drought cycles, summer heat, winter cold, and potential predators.
Determine where it is that you’d like to plant your wildflower garden. Even better if there are a few areas to plant in. Then, take note of the microclimates in those areas.
This will help determine which seeds are right for your property.
For example, let’s say you’re in southern Illinois, close to the Kentucky border. Although IL is considered Midwest, KY is Southeast. A standard Midwestern wildflower garden seed mix should work well for your property, but you could also combine it with some Southeastern seeds too.
Is your soil sandy? Or clay-rich? Is it prone to drought? Are there tall trees that block out the sunshine during the day?
Take note of all these attributes for your seed search. You’ll either find a mix that’s ideal for your property, or you can mix and match individual species to create a perfect cocktail.
For example, I use perennial native Ontario and Quebec wildflower mixes for my property here in the Laurentian foothills.
That said, I also buy individual seed types for different areas. About 1/4 of my land is a sandy hillside that I can’t farm on, so I have planted the following on that area:
- Brown-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia triloba)
- Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa)
- Eastern Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis)
- Spiked Blazing Star (Liatris spicata)
- Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata)
- New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae)
- Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
- Perennial Lupine (Lupinus perennis)
- Rigid Goldenrod (Solidago rigida)
- Greater Mullein (Verbascum thapsus)
- Smooth Aster (Symphyotrichum laeve)
Every year, I’m amazed at just how many pollinators flock to the wildflower patches on my land. I might even start beekeeping because they’ve become so plentiful.
Wildflower Garden Seed Resources
American Meadows is one of the best resources for wildflower seeds in the United States. It offers native species seed kits for six different regions, as well as those best suited to different soil and sun types.
Alternatively, Bulk Wildflowers is another great site.
Note: If you’re in southern Canada, then you can also benefit from the native wildflowers in the US zones closest to you.
The same wildflowers that grow in Michigan are also found in southern Ontario. The same goes for the PNW and southern British Columbia and states like North Dakota and Manitoba, or Saskatchewan.
For a Canadian-specific wildflower garden, check out Northern Wildflowers or West Coast Seeds. The latter, in particular, has great region-specific mixes to choose from.
Landlife Wildflowers is a wonderful resource if you’re in the UK, while Semences de Puy has several different wildflower mixes native to France and the Swiss Pyrenees.
Samenhaus and Saatkontor are good resources for Germany, and you can try Jyllands Frøhandel for Scandinavian mixes. However, if you’re in Iceland, you’ll have to get local seeds: the import laws are fierce.
For most of Australia, Mr. Fothergill’s is a wonderful site. Meanwhile, Garden Post is ideal for New Zealand.
As for all the locales not listed here, that’s just because I can’t read or write in the languages native to those places and can’t offer site suggestions.
How to Care for a Wildflower Garden
This is probably the best news of all: if you plant native species in the soil they’re ideally suited to, they pretty much thrive on neglect. After all, the species indigenous to your area evolved to survive in those conditions.
The wildflower seed mix that you purchase for your area will have fairly specific care requirements, all of which are really easy.
After all, these flowers have adapted to have their seeds scattered by the wind and wild animals. Neither of those things measures down an exact inch into the soil and times their daily waterings.
Seeds that require cold/moist stratification need to be sown directly outdoors in late autumn. This will allow them to overwinter beneath leaf mold and snow, then leap into action as soon as the days warm up.
In contrast, “easy to grow” mixes require you to scatter the seeds in an area that regularly gets full sun and water until they get established. After that, natural rain cycles should take care of them quite well.
Hopefully, you’re now inspired to cultivate a magnificent wildflower garden of your own this year!
Believe me when I say that every little bit helps. Just planting a small patch at the end of your property will draw—and nourish—more native species than you might imagine.
- D. Clements, D, Cole, J. King, A. McClay The biology of Canadian weeds. 128. Leucanthemum vulgare Lam., Canadian Journal of Plant Science, January 2004, Vol. 84, 10.4141/P02-112
New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae)
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New England asters are native to the northeastern U.S. There are many types of asters native to the Northeast, including the New England aster (Aster novae-angliae), a perennial listed among the salt-tolerant plants, making it suitable for roadside plantings. Pictured is a cultivar named the 'Purple Dome' New England aster. Propagation can be achieved by dividing in the spring.
- USDA Growing Zones: 4 to 8
- Color Varieties: Purple, pink, or white rays with yellow centers
- Sun Exposure: Full sun
- Soil Needs: Well-drained soil amended with compost
3. When and How to Scatter Wildflower Seed Over Your Site
When you're getting ready to plant, consider average soil tempartures and the weather. We'll also answer the question "How Much Seed Do I Need?" and show how to sow wildflower seed with the simple Split & Sand Method!
Average Soil Temperatures
As mentioned above, it's best to plant after the chance of late-spring frosts in cold climates, or before the scalding summer sun arrives in hot climates. Seeds will germinate when your soil temperature is 55°F or warmer on average. Air temparatures often warm up before soil temperatures do. One of the most common mistakes people make is to sow seeds when the air has warmed up but the soil is still cool. Check your current soil temperatures here.
Working With Your Schedule & The Weather
Once your ground is bare and loose, you'll want to choose a nearly windless day for your planting so that seeds stay put where you'd like your plants to grow. While high winds and driving rains should be avoided (they can easily wash your planting away), regular rainy days are a perfect way to care for your plantings without needing to reach for the hose. Second only to soil preparation, watering your seeds after planting is the most vital task for growing wildflowers. See Watering instructions below.
Seed Man's Planting Tip: If possible, watch the weather and time your planting to coincide with rainy days. Let Mother Nature water your seeds!
How Much Seed Do I Need?
More seed does not always mean more blooms! While it may be very tempting to throw extra seed down, this usually brings the opposite effect you were looking for. Seeds sown too densely can create competition among seedlings, causing them to become leggy or strangle one another out.
Read our guide, How Much Seed Do I Need? Calculate square footage in 3 easy steps to purchase the right amount of wildflower seed. These guidelines are designed for our wildflower seed mixes. For coverage rates for individual species or custom mixes, contact us!
How To Sow Wildflower Seed: The Simple Split & Sand Method
There are two good reasons for the Split & Sand Method: First, the sand helps you spread it more evenly. Second, since it is lighter than the soil, you'll be able to see where you've sown seeds. The Split & Sand Method, along with some time spent practicing, really helps with an even application.
Seed Man's Planting Tip: When using a seed spreader, always do a practice run first. This will help you get comfortable with sowing, by understanding how much seed comes out how fast.
The Split & Sand Method
- Separate the seed you're planting, no matter the amount, into roughly two equal parts.
- Put the first half in a clean bucket (or coffee can, or anything else handy)
- Then add in roughly eight parts of dry sand to one part of seed, and mix well. (For example: 8 cups sand to 1 cup seed.) Always make sure that your sand is dry, especially if it has been stored outdoors. Wet sand has a tendency to clump and can cause your seed to be applied unevenly. If possible, starting with new sand helps prevent contamination.
- Test out your sowing technique. Your goal is to lay your seed down as evenly as possible, and you're likely to be surprised by how quickly it leaves your hand or the spreader.
- For the best chance of an even application, scatter your seeds in two sowings. Take the container with one halfof your seeds and sow them as evenly as possible while walking across your site from north to south.
- Then take the other half and apply in a similar manner, this time walking in the opposite direction.
As traditionally circumscribed, Polygala includes annual and perennial plants, shrubs, vines, and trees.  The roots often have a scent reminiscent of wintergreen.  The leaf blades are generally undivided and smooth-edged, and are alternately arranged in most species. The inflorescence is a raceme or spikelike array of several flowers the occasional species bears solitary flowers.  The flower is bilateral in shape, with two large petal-like sepals on the sides, often called the "wings",  and three smaller sepals behind. There are three petals in shades of reddish purple, yellow or white, which are joined at the bases. The lower of the three is the keel petal, which is "boat-shaped, cucullate [hood-like], or helmet-shaped".  The keel petal may have a beak or a fringe on the tip.  Stamens and style are within the curve of the keel petal. The fruit is a capsule, sometimes winged. It contains two seeds,  which are usually black, hairy and tipped with a large white aril.  No members of this genus are known to form nitrogen-fixing nodules. 
The genus Polygala was first described by Carl Linnaeus in 1754. Phylogenetic studies showed that, as traditionally circumscribed, the genus was not monophyletic. It had become a "wastebasket taxon" almost all species with a flower apparently similar to those of the Papilionoideae – two petaloid lateral sepals forming 'wings', two petals forming a 'standard', and one petal forming a 'keel', plus a bilocular fruit capsule – were placed in Polygala, while species with more obviously specialized features, particularly those of the fruit, were placed in other genera. In 2011, John Richard Abbott separated some more sharply defined genera from Polygala. 
Partly because of differing circumscriptions, the reported number of valid species in the genus varies from about 350   to 500   to 725  or 730.  The Americas have the most species, especially South America,  with Africa second in diversity and Asia third.  As of April 2020 [update] , Plants of the World Online accepted about 660 species in the genus Polygala. These include: 
Flower Friday: Showy milkwort
Showy milkwort (Asemeia violacea)
Click on terms for botanical definitions.
Despite its common name, Showy milkwort is a diminutive herbaceous wildflower with small flowers that are borne somewhat sparsely on terminal racemes. It is a summer-bloomer, but can bloom year-round in the southern part of the state. The flowers are attractive to bees, the plant’s primary pollinator. Showy milkwort occurs naturally in pinelands, prairies and open disturbed areas throughout Florida.
Flowers are dark pink to pinkish-purple. Sepals are broad, winglike and appear in pairs. The corolla is shorter and tubelike with a yellow spot on the upper lip. The leaf shape varies, but is typically lanceolate to oblanceolate. Leaves have entire margins, are about 1-inch long and are alternately arranged. Stems and leaf undersides are mildly pubescent. The fruit is an inconspicuous capsule. Seeds are small, black and pubescent.
Asemeia violacea was formerly classified as Polygala violacea and P. grandiflora. DNA testing in 2012 resulted in its taxonomic reclassification.
Flower Friday: Lewton’s milkwort
Lewton’s milkwort (Polygala lewtonii)
Click on terms for botanical definitions.
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 terminalspikes. 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 9–10
Soil: Dry, sandy soils
Exposure: Full sun
Growth habit: up to 12” tall
Lewton’s milkwort is not commercially available. Find it in its natural habitat.