A Bouquet in a Blossom


If you enjoy a mixed bouquet, the Maryland milkwort (Polygala mariana) might appeal. Its pink-to-purple petals, combined with brightly colored accents, attracts the eye despite its small size; the densely-packed racemes of the plants shown here were only a half-inch in length.

As its name suggests, the plant can be found throughout the southeast and up the east coast. In Texas, it blooms in moist open pinelands and savannahs or on seepage slopes, and often is found in the sandy soils of the Big Thicket. At the Watson Rare Plant Preserve, Maryland milkwort filled a sunny, open area near the snowy orchids; in the Big Thicket’s Solo tract, they lay scattered along a sandy service road.

Several online sources describe the plant as having a single infloresence atop a simple stem, but I frequently have found the stem that supports the flowers branching near the top. 

Seen from above, the flowers have a pleasing symmetry. I found the bits of yellow described as stamen sheaths, but haven’t found a single online reference to the orange. The shape suggests they might be stamens; if anyone knows, I’ll add the information.***

In the meantime, I’ll enjoy yet another new flower from the Piney Woods: an intricate and colorful ‘mixed bouquet.’


 *** I found more information about the flowers’ various parts in a discussion of a related species: Polygala sanguinea, or purple milkwort.

It seems the lavender ‘petals’ actually are sepals, while the yellow and orange tube-like structures are the fused petals of individual flowers. At the center of the inflorescence, you can see unopened buds. As for color changes in the floral tubes, here’s what the article says:

“What explains the different colors of the floral tubes? If you look carefully, the yellow flowers are closest to the center of the display. They are the most recently in bloom, open for business, the bright yellow actively beckoning pollinators. The peach flowers have been open longer, and are shutting down. The deep pink flowers have been in bloom the longest, and are no longer seeking pollinators for themselves. This kind of color change is usually a plant adaptation to direct pollinators only to the receptive flowers that have not yet been pollinated. It makes the most efficient use of the pollinator’s efforts from the perspective of both the pollinator and the plant.”

As it turns out, ‘bouquet’ was a perfect description.

Comments always are welcome.

94 thoughts on “A Bouquet in a Blossom

    1. For a tiny thing, it certainly is colorful and complex. I’d wondered about pollinators, and after your comment I went looking for more information. I couldn’t locate anything specific to this species, but three other milkwort species are pollinated by native bees or bumble bees, so I suspect this one is, as well, and I suspect the bees go just as crazy for them.

    1. It’s not the only Marylander that’s come our way. In the same area, I found Maryland meadow beauty (Rhexia mariana): a companion to the snowy orchids that also can be found in the meanders of the Nash prairie. Of course, we also have plenty of Virginia-this and Carolina-that, even though we lie on the western edge of their range.

        1. I don’t think any machinations were involved in species from the east coast landing in Texas. That was all the plants’ doing, as they responded to changing conditions, spread their seed, and so on.

          1. My point exactly Linda. Just my usual tongue-in-cheek response to the arbitrary delineation of time (seasons, dates & expectations of weather) and space (borders of provinces, states & countries…)

            1. Well, we humans are good at that, aren’t we? Everyone wants to organize everything into tidy little categories, and to that, Nature gives her Bronx cheer.

    1. Keep your eyes open. The BONAP map is more expansive than the USDA map, and in Wildflowers of Texas, Michael Eason says it can be found from Montgomery County east into Louisiana. That’s your neighborhood!

  1. Very nice! Your close and colorful portraits, plus your designation of the inflorescence as a “bouquet,” make it seem larger than it actually is; who’d have believed only half an inch? I see from the USDA map that the places where you found this species are in the southwestern corner of its range.

    1. It’s so small that even though I noticed the colors at the time, I didn’t appreciate the complexity of the flower’s structure until my macro lens had done its magic and I saw the result on the computer screen. I really was pleased with how the photos turned out.

      It’s range in Texas apparently is a little larger than the USDA map indicates. The BONAP map and Eason both show it in Montgomery County, just north of Houston, as well as a few additional counties.

    2. I discovered last night that ‘bouquet’ is just the right word. I found an explanation for all those differently colored parts in a good article about a related species: the purple milkwort, or P. sanguinea. I quoted some of the explanation and added a link to the original article in the original post.

    1. I found that some of the milkworts hedge their bets in an exceptionally creative way. They have normal flowers, like these, that bloom above ground and are called ‘chasmogamous,’ but they also produce something called cleistogamous flowers that remain underground. From what I understand, the cleistogamous flowers are a kind of Plan B for plants.

      It’s a little beyond me at this point, but it seems that the Maryland milkwort depends solely on its pretty flowers to attract pollinators. If I were a bee, I’d be willing to visit!

      1. The more I discover about plants, the more incredible I learn they are. Some trees (in fact, just about all trees!) are mind-blowingly complex and, well, clever!

            1. Ooo, now there’s an interesting thought. (And how it’s changed o’er time; )
              lol, such deep thoughts – Philosophers ‘r us, hey?
              Time for a coffee

    1. That’s a perfect description, Derrick. It certainly has enough bits and pieces of color — if only we could give it a half-twist and see what happens.

  2. I haven’t seen this one – or noticed it. All those colors. Must be the tiny kindergarten ballerinas who shuffle around backstage among the featured artists? Just like organza tutu costumes with the extra special performance embellishments

    1. It’s such a tiny little thing, it would be easy to miss. I saw my first one only because it was right at my feet when I opened the car door after parking at the Watson preserve. That was last year at the end of the season, and I didn’t see another one until this year. By then, I knew what they were, and watched for them — finally, there they were.

  3. Linda, this is another new one for me. What a pretty flower! This is something that would appeal to many people, I think, given the variety of colors included. And the delicate outer regions with their pinky-purple hue are gorgeous in their own right!

    1. I like the combination of bright color and pastels. I’m sure those colors are noticed by the pollinators, too — who wouldn’t like to stop by such an attractive flower?

      I was looking around to see if you had any milkworts, and you certainly do. I not only found your purple milkwort, the article I linked explains what those yellow and orange bits are — they’re actually the flowers, while the pretty purple, petal-like things are the sepals that surround the flowers. Who knew?

      1. I don’t guess I’ve ever seen a purple milkwort, but now that I know what to look for, I’ll keep my eyes open for it — thanks, Linda!

    1. It would make a nice square card, wouldn’t it? This is one of those flowers that’s more impressive in a photo than in real life, just because the details can be highlighted. Even with my nose right up to the flower, it didn’t seem quite as impressive as in its photos. I’m so glad you like it!

  4. Wow, that is a pretty flower! It’s amazing how much detail flowers have when you see them close-to.

    1. Over and over again, I congratulate myself on having the good sense to purchase a really fine macro lens. It’s a fine tool for exploring the world — and for sharing discoveries like this one.

  5. It is nothing short of spectacular. I would love to come across this beauty on a walk one day.

    1. Oh, I wish you could, David! On the other hand, a closely related and similarly structured species, the purple milkwort can be found in your area. I was happy to find the explanation for the yellow and orange ‘bits’ in that article, which I’ll be adding. The photos are fabulous, too.

    1. Bingo! Your hunch was right. I found an article about a related species, the purple milkwort, that explains it all. The yellow and orange are the actual flowers; the purple parts are sepals. The yellow turns pink, orange, or red, as pollen ages and becomes less desirable. I’d wondered about the similarity to the bluebonnet, but hadn’t pursued it.

  6. That’s a new plant to me. I love the combo of colors. I wonder if the orange could be an earlier or later phase of the yellow? Though I imagine you would have run across that in your research. You find the most fascinating plants, Linda!

    1. I finally turned up the information, though I found it in an article about a related species: the purple milkwort. The yellow bits are the flowers, and they do change color as the pollen ages. The lavender ‘petals’ on this one apparently are the sepals, as on the purple milkwort. They remind me of our native euphorbias, where the tiny flowers are surrounded by the flashier bracts.

    1. I don’t remember any fragrance at all around these. Of course, they’re so small that it would take a good number of them in one spot for any fragrance to be detectable. My suspicion is that they make up for fragrance with color. They certainly do a good job of that.

    1. It’s funny that you don’t like the name, GP. I did wonder about it, and learned that it comes from an old belief that consuming the plant would increase a cow’s milk production!

    1. What a nice compliment — thank you. In this case, the old ‘nose in the dirt’ technique paid off. It is a wonderful flower, and I’m so glad that we have the sorts of tools today — such as a macro lens — that can capture the details.

    1. Thanks, Dina. When I looked at the photos, they reminded me of how much I enjoy a mixed bouquet, and there was the title. The fact that it alliterated was a bonus: lagniappe, if you will!

    1. It is amazing, isn’t it? In a way, these resemble your grape hyacinths, another flower that seems too good — too complex, too colorful — to be true. It’s a wonderful thing that we have these bits of beauty to adorn our world, particularly in these difficult days.

    1. It was new to me as well, Yvonne. I don’t remember seeing even a photo of it before I came across it at the Watson Rare Plant Preserve. Despite the bright colors, it is quite a small thing, and small things close to the ground aren’t always noticed. I think the colors are splendid; even the insects that visit can be quite colorful.

  7. Nature is strange and wonderful. The delicate color on the white petals — couldn’t you just see that on a floor length dress that was white at the top, and shaded into color on the way down to the floor?

    1. I sure can, and washed silk comes to mind for a fabric. Now, here’s the next question: which acccessories in bright yellow and orange would go with the dress? That could amplify the effect a good bit.

  8. Where do I start? The photography of this exquisite bloom is superb, capturing its nature and spirit so finely and beautifully. The flower itself expresses so much the joy and pleasure in nature I hold close to my heart. It is a pure wonder! Thank you for sharing and lifting my spirits during this challenging time, Linda :)

    1. I second that emotion, Linda and Pete. This is the first June when we have not been able to be at our beloved cabin in northern Minnesota and we are sorely missing it. This is a real breath of fresh air and the natural happenings on the other side of the world.

      1. You have two sorts of cabin fever: being stuck in one ‘cabin’ while longing for another! Even here, “so near, and yet so far” applies just now. Two Nature Conservancy sites I dearly love still are closed, despite all of the parks, preserves, and trails around them being open. I’m sure they have their reasons, but it doesn’t help to ease the frustration.

    2. Such kind words, Pete. This one does have that little ‘something extra’ that not every flower exhibits. I think it’s partly the combination of being nearly invisible and completely extravagant! It certainly has exhibited the ability to capture peoples’ attention here — I’m so glad that I found it, shared it, and now have sorted out some of its botanical details. Next, I’d love to find one of its equally tiny pollinators making a visit. (Be sure and see the explanatory details I added to the original post.)

    1. In fact, those mauve petals are sepals. I found a good description of all the parts in a post dedicated to a different species that can be found in your area — purple milkwort — and added the information to the post.

  9. Beautiful shots of a flower I’ve never seen despite my early years wandering the thickets and forests. I’m constantly amazed at the cooperative adaptations we see between flora and fauna.

    1. I always enjoy discovering something that’s new for others as well as for myself, and I’m certainly happy to have introduced you to this gem. I’m learning to make myself look ‘down,’ as well as ‘up’ and ‘out,’ since there’s a lot more going on at ground level than I ever imagined.

      As for the adaptations that make pollination possible, they’re more complex and more interesting than I’d ever imagined. How they evolved is mostly beyond me, but I surely do enjoy learning about them.

  10. It’s a magnificent milkwort and I particularly love the shot from above. Very pleasing. I wonder how much further the spike will extend? In the chalk quarry, here in the village, I have found common milkwort, Polygala vulgaris. It is a sweet looking plant, but much simpler and wilder looking.

    1. I’d guess this one’s spike rarely becomes more than an inch or so long. I didn’t come across any longer than that, and most of the photos I’ve looked at seem to show the same thing. I saw photos of your P. vulgaris while I was trying to sort out the details of this plant; it certainly arranges its flowers differently! There’s another milkwort I’ve come across in the Texas hill country: P. alba. Its appearance is even more different.

  11. Close but no cigar. The USDA map shows it coming as near to us as New York State. What a gem of a bloom. It is indeed a bouquet, and I hope an olfactory one as well, that is a treat to see. We do have our own milkwort, Fringed Milkwort or Gaywings-Polygala paucifolia, that you’ve seen on my blog. But it is only a pretender compared to the beauty that is yours.

    1. I wasn’t aware of any fragrance at all. I suspect it attracts its pollinators — primarily bees — with color rather than scent. Of course, a bee might sense things I can’t, but I wouldn’t think such a tiny flower, especially when scattered about, would provide much of a scent.

      I discovered only last night that a strange little yellow flower I found also is a milkwort. And in the process of discovering that, I came across a bright orange milkwort (P. lutea) with the common name “Bog Cheeto.” For some reason, I suspect that name was only recently applied — certainly since 1948, when Cheetos were invented.

  12. This is a treasure Linda, and indeed a bouquet. I love the fact that you scrutinized the flower and took images of all angles. I think I may have come upon Mary Anne Borge’s blog many years ago. She is more of a scholar. I’m becoming a bit overwhelmed with so much variety so I’m sticking with Southern U.S. flora because it’s just too much variety for me to handle.

    1. It is easy to get overwhelmed. Once spring arrives, it seems everything wants to bloom at once. Beyond that, the variety is remarkable; it’s especially noticeable here in Texas, where each part of the state includes flora common in other parts of the country. East Texas is filled with plants also found along the east coast, and sometimes even into Canada, while the western parts of the state can look remarkably like New Mexico or eastern Colorado. There’s a lot of explore, not to mention a lot of research to be done, since many of the plants I come across I don’t recognize at all.

  13. What a beautiful flower. So symmetrical and yet so unusual in the various colours. Lovely photos, Linda, The overhead shot makes for a lovely square image to highlight the symmetry.

    1. I enjoyed that top-down view, myself. It’s such a pretty flower, and so complex. The fact that the flowers change colors at different rates, leading to yellow, orange, rose, and red all on the same plant, is quite a trick. I’m glad I remembered the flower from last year, and took the time to look for it again.

    1. I’m always surprised when such a small flower turns out to be so complex. Add the variety of colors, and it’s really a show-stopper. I’m glad I took the time to really look at it.

  14. You seem to have an amazing diversity of flowers down there. Is the whole place a botanic garden, or do you just have a lot of special spots?

    1. I’ve never been to a botanical garden in my life. I specialize in vacant lots, refuges and sanctuaries, ditches, and such. We do have a wealth of plants, that’s for sure, and because the state is so large, the variety is breathtaking. The phrase “embarassment of riches” comes to mind!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.