Polygala polygama (Racemed Milkwort)

Plant Info
Also known as: Purple Milkwort, Bitter Milkwort
Family:Polygalaceae (Milkwort)
Life cycle:biennial
Habitat:part shade, sun; dry sandy soil, prairies, open meadows, open woods
Bloom season:June - August
Plant height:6 to 12 inches
Wetland Indicator Status:GP: FACU MW: FACU NCNE: FACU
MN county distribution (click map to enlarge):Minnesota county distribution map
National distribution (click map to enlarge):National distribution map

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Detailed Information

Flower: Flower shape: irregular Cluster type: raceme Cluster type: spike

[photo of flowers] Spike-like raceme, usually loosely arranged, 1 to 4+ inches (to 10+ cm) long at the tip of the stem. Flowers are short-stalked, pink to rose-purple to nearly white, about ¼ inch (4 to 6 mm) long with 2 spreading, petal-like sepals flanking 3 petals rolled into a column with a fringed crest in the center. Petal-less, self-pollinating flowers (cleistogamous) are also produced underground on short stems.

Leaves and stem: Leaf attachment: alternate Leaf type: simple

[photo of leaves] Leaves are alternate, up to about 1 inch (3 cm) long and about ¼ inch (2 to 6+ mm) wide, linear to elliptic to narrowly spatula-shaped, widest at or above the middle, toothless, hairless, blunt or pointed at the tip, tapering to a stalkless base. The lowest leaves may be significantly reduced in size. Stems are leafy, usually unbranched and multiple from the base, erect to ascending or prostrate from the base and rising up at the tip (decumbent).

Fruit: Fruit type: capsule/pod

[photo of developing fruit] Fruit is a 2-seeded capsule 2 to 4 mm long, somewhat heart-shaped, broadly elliptic or nearly round in outline. The persistent lateral sepals fold up and wrap around the capsule as it develops, the color fading to pale pink or greenish white. Seeds are up to 3 mm long, variously hairy, with a 2-lobed appendage 1/3 to ¾ as long as the seed.


Racemed Milkwort reaches the northwest edge of its range in Minnesota and primarily found from the Twin Cities Metro area through our southeast counties, but scattered populations are as far north as Beltrami and Lake counties. Habitats are sandy prairies, dunes, savanna and barrens. When open, the flowers are near miniatures of the larger and more showy Gaywings (Polygala paucifolia) though flower components are proportionally different.

There are apparently 2 varieties of P. polygama, though they are not universally accepted. In Minnesota, var. obtusata is recognized as present in the state; it is supposedly a northern variety with denser racemes than southern populations of var. ramulosa, but no additional information is available and the density of the raceme being a distinguishing characteristic seems a bit far fetched considering what we've witnessed in the field.

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More photos

Photos by K. Chayka taken at Wild River State Park, Chisago County. Photos by Peter M. Dziuk taken at Boot Lake SNA, Anoka County and in Isanti County. Polygala polygama fruit photo by Keir Morse used under CC BY-NC-SA 3.0.


Have you seen this plant in Minnesota, or have any other comments about it?

Posted by: Linda - Pin Oak S & N area
on: 2015-06-21 14:50:25

Found on the open hillsides/dry prairie area at Pin Oak SNA south of Chatfield, MN

Posted by: Karen - Hastings
on: 2015-06-23 12:16:34

In bloom at the Hastings Sand Coulee SNA 6-23-15. Also occurs at Grey Cloud Dunes SNA.

Posted by: Jason Osowski - Zimmerman, MN
on: 2020-07-16 16:59:16

Present at Fremont WMA Southside prairie remnant.

Posted by: Brett W - Sherburne county
on: 2022-06-19 18:46:24

Surprised to see this popping up in the scraped topsoil part from the removal of an old farms dump site. First time recording this plant in the SE Unit!

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