Common Milkwort

The grassy cliff tops of The Lizard are full of Common Milkwort from spring and into summer – the coastal path between Coverack and Lowland Point is a good place to spot this delicate, pretty plant.

Photo: Amanda Scott

Scientific name: Polygala vulgaris 

Other names: Gong flower, Rogation flower, Four Sisters (in Ireland – probably because of its colour variations)

Conservation status: None

Common Milkwort, which flowers from May to September, is one of only four members of the Milkwort family (Polygalaceae) found in the UK. This species has a preference for basic soils and short grassland, where it grows low to the ground, but is not unknown on acid grasslands in some locations. Although mainly blue, its flowers, which grow in racemes, have a natural colour variation, with pink, white, purple and mauve forms also being found. One of the key characteristics of its small flowers are the fringed white edge of the three petals, which are fused together into a small tube. The larger coloured ‘petals’ are in fact the inner sepals.

It is easy to confuse Common with Heath Milkwort (P. serpyllifolia). The latter tends to have a deeper colour, but the key diagnostic is that Common Milkwort has alternate leaves, whereas those of Heath Milkwort are opposite (though upper pairs of leaves may still be alternate – check the lower leaf pairs).

The species is declining in population size, although its range has remained broadly the same, since the 1950s. This is probably due to loss of habitat as a result of agricultural intensification.

Did you know…?

…Dioscorides, a botanist from Ancient Greece, gave the genus its name of Polygala (derived from polugalon’, which means ‘much milk’). Herbalists through the centuries used to prescribe the plant as a medicine for mothers with newborn babies believing it promoted milk production (there is no scientific evidence that this is effective).

…Milkwort juice has also been used as a folk cure for warts

More information and references:

Rose, F. and O’Reilly, C., 2006. The Wild Flower Key, 2nd edition. Frederick Warne, London.

Published: June 2013
Author: Amanda Scott
Photos: Lower – © Natural England/Paul Grendell; others –
Amanda Scott