This is might be the only plant in the wilds of South Florida with a common name inspired by a snack chip: Bog Cheetos. Seriously. And descriptively, it works, oddly enough. If you look at the flower Polygala lutea it puts out, it does remind you of a cheese puff, and it does live in boggy habitats.
However, despite the temptation to run with it — and we are sorely tempted — we’ll stick with the more conventional and widely used common name, orange milkwort. Boring, but it works.
Orange milkwort is a small member of the milkwort family, and like many of its relatives, it tends to be found in wet places with sandy or peaty soils, like pine flatwoods. It is a Florida native and found throughout most of the state except for Miami-Dade and Monroe counties. Its range extends along the Atlantic Coast as far north as New York and as far west along the Gulf to Louisiana.
In New York, there once were nine known populations of orange milkwort; now that’s down to three, and the plant is listed as endangered. Pennsylvania was once part of its range, but it no longer is found there. The Institute for Regional Conservation in Delray Beach considers it imperiled in South Florida but it is not legally protected by the state or federal government.
Orange milkwort has rosette of leaves at its base. The leaves are three quarters of an inch to an inch-and-a-half in length, oblong or spatula-shaped, with smooth edges and a smooth, almost succulent feel to them. When not in bloom, the plant stands maybe two or three inches above the ground. The orange blossoms — it's actually a cluster of small flowers — might add an inch or two more.
In northern parts of its range, flowering season is June into October. In South Florida, orange milkwort will bloom as early as March and extend well into fall. The flowers themselves are bright orange like a Cheeto, impossible to confuse with any other member of the milkwort family. Or another plant, for that matter.
But there is one odd thing regarding its name. Scientifically, it’s known as P. lutea, which was given by the great 18th century Swede Carolus Linnaeus, creator of the binomial system that scientists use to name and systematically classify living things. Lutea is Latin for yellow. So how does a plant with a flower as orange as Cheeto orange get the name yellow milkwort short of someone being a tad colorblind? Linnaeus, working in Europe, described the plant using a specimen that had been dug up months earlier in America. As it turns out, those orange flowers turn yellow over time, so Linnaeus did not see what the plant looks like alive in the field.
What’s odder still is that some even now use yellow milkwort or yellow batchelor buttons as its common name. A slide of it shown during a University of Florida Master Naturalist class we took actually called it that. We took exception, not being colorblind ourselves. Orange milkwort or even bog Cheetos make much more descriptive sense.
While we’re talking names, its time to throw in the obligatory paragraph required in any story involving milkworts: Polygala means many milk, and comes from a former belief that the presence of these plants in a field indicated a good place to graze cows. Let Old Bessie munch away and she’ll produce lots of milk.
And like other members of the milkwort family, orange milkworts have a food body, or elaiosome, attached to their seeds. The elaiosomes are rich in protein and fat and are intended to “bribe” small insects into distributing the seeds. Ants in particular are attracted to the elaiosomes; they’ll cart off seeds to their colony, eat the eliasome and discard the remainder outside the nest, where a new orange milkwort might spring up.
The Seminoles used orange milkwort as medicine to treat heart palpitations, yellow skin, shortness of breath and swollen parts of the body. They made an infusion to treat chronic conditions. The Choctaw made a poultice using dried flowers and used it to swollen parts of the body. It’s reportedly easy to grow, but commercial nurseries don’t offer it for sale.
Other common names include red-hot-poker and candyweed. It is a member of Polygalaceae, the milkwort family.