Not Warts, But Worts

 

Beautiful though the Maryland milkwort may be, that little “bouquet in a blossom” is far from the only milkwort in Texas. Several species bloom across different regions of the state, including this pretty Polygala alba, or white milkwort, found on a rocky slope near Willow City on July 1.

The genus name Polygala comes from the Greek for ‘much milk,’ as the plants were thought to increase milk yields in cattle. The ‘wort’ in ‘milkwort’ is simply an old word for ‘plant’ which appears in the names of many species; bladderwort, St. John’s wort, bellwort, and lungwort are some of the better-known.

Three hundred miles away and two weeks earlier, in the Big Thicket, the pinebarren milkwort (Polygala ramosa) was coming into its own. An uncommon plant that prefers wet pine savannas and bogs, it’s found primarily in far southeastern Texas.

Another half-dozen Polygala species can be found in southeastern or far eastern Texas, but most bloom in spring; finding them probably will have to wait until next year’s explorations.

 

Comments always are welcome.
There is a plant known as thewart-wort‘, but, etymologically, ‘wart’ and ‘wort’ are unrelated. If you’re interested, you might enjoy this article from the Columbia Journalism Review.

 

57 thoughts on “Not Warts, But Worts

  1. Wort is an interesting term. It always seems to have a medieval connotation somehow, although I don’t quite know why I think that. I should imagine that most people are familiar with St. John’s Wort and its alleged medicinal properties. Whatever your topic, Linda, I am always greatly enamoured of your pictures which are always so crisp and clean.

    1. Wort is a native word, from Old English wyrt. Root, which got borrowed from Old Norse rōt, traces back to the closely related Germanic *wrōt‑. (The asterisk indicates a form that is hypothesized but has never actually been found written down.)

        1. That’s interesting, Pit. There’s a colicroot that grows in east Texas, so I looked up the name in German. Sure enough: Kolikwurzel! Now I’ve learned something!

      1. Thanks for that addition. One of the side benefits of moving from “Ooh… pretty flower!” to “Look at that pretty white milkwort” is that as I’ve learned more about plants, the roots of our language have become visible, too.

    2. Many plants carry names with ‘wort’ as an ending because of centuries-old human belief that the shape of the plant indicated which maladies it could cure: spleenwort and liverwort come to mind. It also occurred to me that we became accustomed to the sound of ‘wort’ when the Harry Potter series became popular and everyone was talking about the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Of course the spelling is different, but the sound’s the same, and we got used to hearing it.

      It’s amazing how many plants carry ‘wort’ as part of their name. I was happy to find such different ones to present together, and I’m glad you enjoyed seeing them.

  2. You handled the white milkwort nicely. When I got to the mention of Willow City I understood how you’d come across it. I don’t find that species in Austin and have to go some 45 minutes northwest before I expect to see any.

    1. Most of the milkworts were substantially shorter than those shown online, perhaps because of earlier mowings. They were thick, though, and many were growing alongside Stillingia texana, the Queen’s Delight that you identified for me a couple of years ago. I was sorry that those plants were almost over the hill, but there were hundreds of tumbling flower beetles who seemed pretty happy with them.

    1. And I didn’t know the history of St. John’s wort as a medicinal plant until I started exploring the meaning of ‘wort.’ We have lungwort, bloodwort, liverwort and spleenwort — too bad we don’t have covidwort!

  3. Is this the sort of plant that draws butterflies, Linda? I like seeing the differences between the white variety and the yellow one. Thank you for educating me this morning — most of us don’t want to have anything to do with something called ‘wart’!

    1. No, both of these are pollinated by a variety of bees, although the occasional beetle may show up. I had to smile when I came across a 1971 Ph.D. dissertation on the pollinators of the white milkwort; there are people out there studying every sort of thing — often, to our benefit.

      As for avoiding ‘warts’ — that may be why J.K. Rowling used the name ‘Hogwarts’ for Harry Potter’s school.

    1. Funny that the spiderwort didn’t come to my mind; it’s the ‘wort’ I most often see, and one of my favorites. I did a quick look around and couldn’t find any milkwort in your area, although there may be one. The areas where these species grow are quite different from one another, but it occurs to me that your area differs from them both.

    1. Well, just wait until I show you the very pretty, very interesting, and more-or-less rare bladderwort that grows in east Texas! You may not like the name, but I’ll bet you’ll like the flower. On the other hand, it is a carnivorous plant, so that might not appeal, either.

      No, I’m right at home, working away. I found the white milkwort on my trip to the hill country a couple of weekends ago, and the pinebarren milkwort on an earlier Sunday trip to the piney woods. I stayed home over the 4th to avoid the crowds. With the beaches all closed, I was hearing reports of people migrating to the refuges and parks, and even before our current unpleasantness I disliked being out in the midst of crowds.

    1. As much as I hate to report this, you’re going to have to adjust your expectations for the Willow City Loop. The first half is intact, including some of the undeveloped property that’s always so rich in spring wildflowers, but the developers have arrived, and the second half of the loop — the portion that runs down the hill alongside Willow Creek — has been razed. I found pieces of heavy equipment parked here and there, and evidence of their work everywhere: trees pushed down, scalped earth, and so on. It was horrible, and I still haven’t quite gotten over it. I always intended to start from the creek end of the loop rather at Willow City, just because I had fewer photos from that area. Now, it’s gone.

  4. Thanks, Linda. Your posts are always interesting. With you and Steve in my regular reading, not only am I introduced to new and gorgeous plants, but my knowledge of words and their meanings/history has improved.

    1. That makes me happy, Tina, since I started with almost no knowledge myself, and have had to learn as I go. It’s amusing but true that when I first became interested in plants, my basic distinction was “Pretty flower” or “Not so pretty flower.” Having new words always lets us see in new ways.

  5. Beautiful pictures. It’s funny I never look the word up. Thank you for doing it for me. Stumbling through the maze of my mind, I am reminded of when I named our house “Chez Maison.”

    1. Well, if you had a buddy whose name was Maison (maybe Perry Maison?) that would work — at least, as I recall. ‘Chez Milkwort’ might work for the spots where I found these little gems.

    1. Isn’t that interesting? I started trying to figure out what the commonalities in the species are, but I got lost in the taxonomic weeds pretty quickly, and decided that being able to identify them was good enough.

    1. Thank you, Pete. I’m so intrigued by the differences among the plants; like any family, there are obvious differences among the individuals, but they’re all quite interesting.

  6. An interesting post! They’re both really lovely flowers, so different-looking it’s hard to believe they’re cousins.
    In Milwaukee, where Pabst, Miller, Schlitz, Blatz, etc. got their start, “wort” is going to suggest something else entirely – – the sugary barley-soup, that, with careful fermentation, will blossom into beer. Or, if you’re of Irish descent, and fond of whiskey, I guess it could be used as “mother’s milk wort.”

    1. That difference is the reason I posted these photos together. I never would have suspected that they were in the same genus. I came across some mentions of beer when I was wandering around the worts, but didn’t get a firm grip on how the word applied. Very interesting. “Mother’s Milkwort” is a name our local St. Arnold’s brewery might use. Just reading through the list of names on that list is a hoot. I’m rather fond of Lawnmower, myself, and in the fall I enjoy Pumpkinator.

    1. Isn’t the pinebarren milkwort interesting? I don’t know what genus I would have placed it in, just because of that odd appearance. The spikiness reminds me of a plant called snake cotton. I’ve not seen it around here, but I have some photos of it from the piney woods.

    1. They’re categorized as herbs/forbs, but I couldn’t find any indication in the foraging sites that I trust that either is used medicinally or as food. The fact that ‘milkwort’ was believed to increase milk production in cattle suggests that they aren’t toxic, but I couldn’t find any reference to them being beneficial to humans — or edible. Which ones did you plant?

  7. At the nearby restaurant, I’m more hurried than usual. Today was the first day to return to ‘yellow’ status for this province, and it’s like Christmas Eve all over town/all day. I was here at noon and told them hi/bye. I suspect that in three or so weeks we’ll be echo-ing what’s happening in the usa.

    Thanking of you often, though I know you’re being smart and diligent and staying strong and positive.

    Even here right now, the images are not loading! It’s hard to enjoy posts when images don’t load! (Not your fault but the slow internet.)
    The owner at Poza Honda said that his internet has been down.. the tower is ‘down’ and there are no options for repair b//c of lack of import options!
    I’m about to go even more off line, while the rest of the province acts as if the invisible enemy is no longer a threat. (In Jama the local doctor (private doc) lost his father to Covid. His mother, the pharmacist, is also sick in the hospital here in the city, as is one of his sons…

    Keep spreading sunshine and happy vibes via your lovely writing and images!

    Love,
    Lisa

    1. I’m not surprised to hear that supply lines have been disrupted, whether by concerns about Covid or for other reasons. When this first began, I stocked up on plenty of sandpaper, varnish, and solvents. Some of my favorite products come from Canada, for one thing, and there wasn’t any guarantee in early March that goods would keep flowing. I had a heck of a bill in March, but I probably have enough of a stash to keep me going until September, so that’s good. I hate that your internet connections have been disrupted. It’s possible to cope without an online connection, but it much more enjoyable with one.

      We’ve had quite a surge of cases locally, but I’ve yet to have anyone I know test positive. In fact, all of the reports I’ve heard have been third or fourth hand, so that’s good. I’m not particularly worried about picking it up. It’s possible, but since I avoid bars, beaches, and large crowds by preference — especially in the heat of summer — the chances are pretty low. I do have a couple of masks with pretty Texas bluebonnets on them: appropriate, don’t you think?

  8. Thanks for the info about the meaning of “wort” and its frequency in plant names. It’s one of those things I tend to wonder about and then neglect to follow up. I’m most familiar with St. John’s Wort from its use as an antidepressant. I don’t know if it’s still the case, but it was in common use in Europe back when I was in practice. Some clients felt it helped.

    I’ll have to get up to the Willow City area to look around. I expect it’s a lot less crowded when it isn’t the height of the spring wildflower season.

    1. I knew that St. John’s Wort was used medicinally, but that was the extent of my knowledge — until I wrote this post, and started poking around among the worts. It seems to be quite popular, given the number of Amazon Prime listings, and the thousands of glowing testimonies. Of course, there is that little issue of interactions with prescription drugs and other herbals, but to quote an anonymous online user, “That’s just the drug companies guarding their turf.” Personally, I’ll stick with the occasional Benadryl during allergy season.

      As for Willow City, this is what I said to Misti — another reader who knows the area:

      “As much as I hate to report this, you’re going to have to adjust your expectations for the Willow City Loop. The first half is intact, including some of the undeveloped property that’s always so rich in spring wildflowers, but the developers have arrived, and the second half of the loop — the portion that runs down the hill alongside Willow Creek — has been razed. I found pieces of heavy equipment parked here and there, and evidence of their work everywhere: trees pushed down, scalped earth, and so on. It was horrible, and I still haven’t quite gotten over it. I always intended to start from the creek end of the loop rather at Willow City, just because I had fewer photos from that area. Now, it’s gone.”

      I had a nice chat with the chief of the volunteer fire department, and got a few details about the work. Given the number of new ‘posted’ signs, the extended fencing that’s appeared here and there, and the number of new homes being built, this coming spring may be about the end of the Willow City I’ve loved. In time, we’ll find out.

  9. Not going to machinate a reply where I can work in “worts and all,” which puns the instructions Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) gave to the painter who painted his portrait (warts and all). (Are the petals on the Polygala alba as waxy as they look?) The P. ramosa looks like it was assembled from the swallow-tail-cut ends of yellow satin ribbon.

    1. It’s fun that Cromwell’s comment has endured all these centuries, even among people who wouldn’t have a clue who he is. I remember hearing the phrase much more often when I was a kid. Maybe the age of photoshopping and airbrushing has made it less common: no need to worry about warts when you can eliminate them with technology.

      The Polygala alba petals aren’t exactly waxy, but they are a little stiff. I suppose part of that’s because they’re so small; there’s not much to flop around. I like the comparison to satin ribbon ends. It’s a funny little plant. The next time I see it, I’m going to dissect a bloom or two and figure out how it’s constructed.

  10. I’ve never met a ‘wort’ that I didn’t like and P. alba is a beauty. P. ramosa is attractive as well. Both images do them justice. I am glad for the spelling because lungwarts is kind of a creepy thought.

    1. The pinebarren milkwort isn’t pretty in any conventional sense, but it’s an interesting contrast to the white milkwort. It reminds me of medieval weaponry. The next time I find it, I’m going to take a closer look at that construction — and maybe get to it earlier in the day, so I’m not dripping sweat all over it and the camera.

      Lungwarts is a terrible thought. That’s probably exactly the reason ‘Hogwarts’ was such a perfect name for Harry Potter’s school.

      1. I’ll have to take your word for its appropriateness as all I know about Harry Potter is that it was about wizardry. Haven’t read any of it or even seen a YouTube snippet.

  11. It’s amazing how different the plants in a genus can look. There’s a small shrubby polygala called ‘chamaebuxus’ which I’ve grown before, and it looks entirely different to these.

    1. That seems especially true with the milkworts. I was surprised by their variety; that’s one reason I showed the white milkwort and the pinebarren milkwort together. If I’d seen the pinebarren all by itself, without a clue to its identity, I’m not sure what I would have thought.

      I looked up your chamaebuxus, and you’re right that it doesn’t look anything like the three milkwort species I’ve shown. I really do like this white version. I’d be happy to grow it, but the Missouri Botanical Garden isn’t too enthusiastic. Their site says, “Generally dislikes the hot and humid conditions of the deep South where it is likely to be short-lived.” Whoops!

  12. Lovely shots, as usual.

    As a homebrewer, wort means something else entirely to me; the mix of barley malt (and sometimes other odds and ends), water, and hops that we brew up. There’s a saying amongst brewers: brewers make wort, yeast makes beer.

    1. It’s a measure of my ignorance that I’ve always associated beer with hops, or barley, but never with ‘wort.’ Until I started reading about flowers with ‘wort’ in their name, I had no idea about that aspect of the brewing process. It’s a great reminder that there’s more to most processes than we tend to consider; clearly, I’ve never known a home brewer, or listened in to discussions of the process. I just enjoy the result.

    1. That’s interesting. I’d never thought of ‘wort’ as being negative or positive, although the natural confusion of it with ‘wart’ probably could lead some to go, “Ewwww.”

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