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Nuttall's Milkwort - Polygala nuttallii


Family: Polygalaceae - Milkwort family Genus Common Name: Milkwort, Polygala Native Status: NativeDicot Annual Herb
Polygala nuttallii - Nuttall's Milkwort. Polygala - Milkwort - is a very large genus with somewhere between 300 and 500 species worldwide. Recent reclassification probably leaves it closer to the lower end of that number than the high end, but still 300 to 400 species makes for a large genus. 40 - 60 species are found in North America. While more of those are in the eastern half of the continent than in the west, there is at least one species found in all but 2 to 4 states - missing from Alaska and Idaho; it's presence in Washington and Nevada is apparently disputed.

Polygala nuttallii - Nuttall's Milkwort - is a species of primarily the Piedmont and coastal plains of the east from Mississippi north to New York and Massachusetts. However, there are also disjunct populations in Tennessee, and historic records of its presence in Kentucky, although it is apparently extirpated in that state. There are reports of its presence in Arkansas which need confirmation. The specimens on this page were photographed in Tennessee, where it is classified as state ranked E (Endangered) and S1 (Critically Imperiled).

Nuttall's Milkwort is very similar in appearance and range to Curtiss' Milkwort (Polygala curtissii) with the latter being a somewhat larger plant, with a larger inflorescence, pedicels, and wings. The plants presented here were in the larger end of the range for Nuttall's - which would put them in the smaller end for Curtiss' - and both species are found in Coffee County, TN, where these photographs were taken. However, Curtiss' is a plant of drier, mafic barrens and rocky outcrops, while Nuttall's habitat is, according to Weakley's Flora of the Southern and Mid-Atlantic States, moister, being found in pocosins (a type of wetland), depression ponds, and pine savannas. The location of the plants presented here, May Prairie, is decidedly a moister environment.

Found in:
AL, AR, CT, DE, FL, GA, KY, MA, MD, MS, NC, NJ, NY, PA, RI, SC, TN, VA
Polygala nuttallii

Distribution of Polygala nuttallii in the United States and Canada:
USDA Plants Distribution Map temporarily unavailable.
Blue=Native; Grey=Introduced

Map from USDA Plants Database:
USDA, NRCS. 2017. The PLANTS Database (http://plants.usda.gov, 23 Oct 2017). National Plant Data Team, Greensboro, NC 27401-4901 USA.

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Site: May Prairie State Natural Area, Coffee County, TN Date: 2017-July-10Photographer: Gerald C. Williamson
Nikon D7000
Tamron SP 90MM f/2.8 AF Macro
The inflorescence of Polygala nuttallii is a small raceme of pinkish flowers terminating the usually several branches of the plant.
Polygala nuttallii

Site: May Prairie State Natural Area, Coffee County, TN Date: 2010-July-10Photographer: Gerald C Williamson
Nikon D7000
The flowers of Milkwort (Polygala) species have 5 sepals and 3 petals. In some species, the inflorescence is so compact that individual flowers are not discernable, but fortunately Polygala nuttallii is one with distinct flowers. The two pink wings are 2 large petal-like sepals. The other three sepals are small and underly the rest of the flower. The 3 petals are white tipped with yellow (at least during part of their lifecycle), and are joined at the base, forming a tube with a keel-shaped lower petal around the stamens and style. This photo clearly shows both yellow- and pink-tipped keel and upper petals. It appears to me that the stamens and stigma may also be yellow, but I don't have a clear enough photograph to definitively state that.
Click on the photo for a larger image
Polygala nuttallii

Site: May Prairie State Natural Area, Coffee County, TN Date: 2010-July-10Photographer: Gerald C Williamson
Nikon D7000
Polygala nuttallii grows to a height of about a foot, and is usually more highly branched than this specimen. The leaves are alternately arranged along the stem, and are very narrow relative to their length, which is usually less than an inch.
Click on the photo for a larger image
Polygala nuttallii

Site: May Prairie State Natural Area, Coffee County, TN Date: 2017-July-10Photographer: Gerald C Williamson
Nikon D7000
As shown here, Nuttall's Milkwort is usually highly branched with an inflorescence terminating each branch. At a distant glance, these looked like a Prairie Clover to my wife and me, until we took a closer look.
Click on the photo for a larger image
Polygala nuttallii

Site: May Prairie State Natural Area, Coffee County, TN Date: 2017-July-10Photographer: Gerald C Williamson
Nikon D7000
The inflorescence of Polygala nuttallii is quite small, usually no more than 6 mm in diameter. With the spreading wings, this example appears to slightly exceed that, being closer to the lower limit of Polygala curtissii. If it were not for the wet habitat where these were photographed, I would have been unsure about the identity of these plants due to the "between" size.
Click on the photo for a larger image
Polygala nuttallii

References used for identification and information:

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All content except USDA Plants Database map Copyright Gerald C. Williamson 2017
Photographs Copyright owned by the named photographer