Natural Lowcountry: Early wildflowers bring promise of spring – Hilton Head Island Packet


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Orange milkwort has tight clusters of bright orange flowers.

Vicky McMillan

After so many drab winter days, it’s been nice to spot a few wildflowers popping up along the lagoons and in open grassy areas near our house. For me, two native species in particular signal the coming of spring. One is called orange milkwort (Polygala lutea), an inconspicuous little plant, less than a foot high. When surrounded by tall grasses, it’s easily overlooked. But patches of milkwort, with their tight clusters of bright orange flowers, provide splashes of color during early spring. The name “milkwort” comes from an old belief that the plants, when eaten by cows, increased their milk supply. Several hundred species of milkwort are found throughout much of the world, and many have various roles in traditional medicine. Orange milkwort, for example, was used by some native American tribes to treat heart palpitations, shortness of breath and other conditions. In common with a host of other plants, milkworts have seeds with nutrient-rich attachments (elaiosomes) that are attractive to foraging ants. The ants gather the seeds, feed the elaiosomes to their offspring, then dump the seeds onto organically rich waste piles near their nests. The seeds, still viable, are thus dispersed to favorable germination sites. This relationship appears to be mutually beneficial to both the milkworts and the ants. Another early spring wildflower is blue toadflax (Linaria, or Nuttallanthus, canadensis), a slender, delicate little plant found throughout much of the U.S. It tolerates disturbed areas and poor, sandy soil. Each of its small, blue-violet flowers is divided into two lobed “lips,” and the leaves are pointed and narrow. Often many toadflax plants grow together in masses, their thin stems waving in the breeze. As spring merges into early summer, you may spot common buckeye butterflies (Junonia coenia) fluttering nearby, since blue toadflax leaves serve as egg-laying sites for females and provide food for the newly hatched caterpillars. The flowers are nectar sources for adult buckeyes, along with several other species of butterflies. As the days continue to lengthen, both milkworts and toadflax are promises of warmer weather ahead.
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