Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Milkwort - More Wild Carolina Flowers

Rambling the back roads near Swansboro with Cousin Daniel, we encounter a number of cool natives of the Coastal Plain, 
including several from genus Polygala
a.k.a. Milkworts.

So called because they were once believed to enhance milk production in livestock, the native North Carolina milkworts have earned our appreciation not for their legendary effects on cows, 
but for their intricate and eye-catching blossoms.

First up is Polygala cruciata, or Drumheads. 

From a distance, their attractive pinkish-purple flowerheads
resemble a single bulbous blossom,  
but upon closer inspection,
the flowerhead looks like something from an undersea reef or another world entirely...
a colony of tiny purple and yellow tentacled hydras sporting showy pink collars! 

This up-close encounter leaves us wondering once again at the astonishing biodiversity in our little corner of the universe;
or, in this case, right here beside the road.

Pick any spot of ground, no matter how poor the soil;
say, perhaps, a roadside ditch in Onslow County.

Add sunlight and rain, 

and marvel at the miracle that is life...

Orange Milkwort, Polygala lutea.

The flowerhead of tiny bright orange blossoms,
arranged so that their outstretched "wings" suggest flickering flames,
have earned Orange Milkwort the nickname "red hot poker",
a wild flower even more spectacular in our estimation than its cousin, P. cruciata .

Long ago, when this roadway was originally graded,
ditches cut perfectly parallel on either side,
this was a barren landscape of lifeless sandy soil, 
baking under the harsh rays of the sun.

But beneath the desolate surface, there lay a seed (or two, or three)...

And while today's busy beach-goers might glance at the weedy roadside and perceive that little has changed in the seventy-five years since this seldom-travelled byway was first carved from
the now scattered and flattened dunes, 
a closer look reveals a landscape alive, 
teeming with various and wonderful lifeforms,
perfectly suited to the conditions found right here, 
a few short miles from where the land we call North Carolina
gives way to the vast Atlantic.

There are other remarkable creatures abiding on the lonesome roadside,
but today, we're focused on the diminutive milkworts,
well worthy, we believe,
of the time it takes for a little closer look.

Polygala ramosa, low pinebarren milkwort, or yellow savannah milkwort, 
is right there to greet us with a thousand tiny golden wands!

And she's a favorite today with the pollinators,
as she and little lobelia soak up the rays on the sandy ditch bank.

Eventually, we part ways, happy to have made the acquaintance of these three Coastal Plain Milkworts.  And, as luck would have it, we aren't quite done with Polygala yet; 

a hundred miles to the west, and no more than a mile from home, 
on the shoulder of Highway 42 in Lee County, 

we meet more Milkworts beside the way,
these little pink and lavender lovelies, 
Polygala curtissii,
Curtiss' Milkwort or Appalachian Milkwort.

As we kneel quietly by the wayside,
already perspiring outside the air-conditioned comfort of the car, 
tender knees irritated by the coarse sand and eyes nervously straying to the nearby fire ant mound,

we wonder,

why do we love these wild flowers so? 

Why, indeed...

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