Plant Profiles: Polygala chamaebuxus
Drawing by Rene Eisenbart
Caligula can he tux us
February through April blooming miniature evergreen shrub, 4 to 6 inches
Sun to part shade, good drainage
The peatier and better-drained the soil, the faster the spread
Dwarf broadleaf evergreen
Every once in a while a botanical name gets stuck in my head like a catchy tune. It all started years ago with Tradescantia, which hit me like the Hallelujah Chorus. In fact, that's how I memorized its name -- singing it to that famous chorus from Handel's Messiah:
TRAD-escantia! TRAD-escantia! TradesCANtia! TradesCANtia! TradesCA-A-ANtia!
Of course some plant names make their own music: Chamaecyparis (cammaSIParris)... Diascia (deeASSeeya)... Melaleuca (mellaLUKEah)... each a lyric waiting for a song. Others, such as the incredibly suggestve Polygala, come with their own short story.
Depending on your bent, Polygala chamaebuxus (poLIGala cameeBUCKsus) conjures up images of either a debauched Roman emperor or a fairy-tale princess with chubby cheeks ("One day, little Polygala bought a big box of chocolates…"). One look at the plant, of course, and all thoughts of depravity vanish, since we're talking an incredibly pretty little groundhugger of a shrub with dainty, orchidlike flowers.
But the common name for the genus -- milkwort -- makes for a rather racy story when told by Martha Barnette, author of A Garden of Words, a book that celebrates the language of plants. Barnette, who lives in Kentucky, is an e-mail buddy of mine who can't resist a good etymological challenge, so I put the word "milkwort" to her, and this is what she wrote:
"Ha! Well my OED (Oxford English Dictionary) says that milkwort was 'formerly supposed to increase the milk of nurses.' Under 'Polygala' there's a 1661 notation saying that it causes 'the cattle to give abundance thereof.'
"Then there's always the fun factoid," she continues, "that the Romans... said that the Milky Way had spurted from Juno's breasts, and that the drops that had fallen to earth had turned into lilies. English poets of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries used the term 'milky way' to refer to 'the region of a woman's breasts' (as in) 'Behold her heav'nly face and heaving milky way.' Hooee! Hot stuff in them thar dictionaries!"
The woman definitely has a way with language -- though I doubt she'd have as much success growing P. chameabuxus or its prettier sister, P. chameabuxus var. grandiflora, both unlikely candidates for Kentucky's clay soil and summer humidity. The plants are quite at home here in the Northwest , though, asking no more than good drainage and full sun (and even that's negotiable).
Yet for truly pretty late-winter-blooming evergreens, they're surprisingly underused, and it could well be their bloom time that works against them. Even if the nurseries were chock-full of these milkworts, few gardeners would be browsing the tables to see them. They're also truly tiny -- we're talking four inches high -- and are typically grown in rock gardens and troughs. Yet plant these box-woodlike bushlets in a conspicuous place where their fanciful blossoms can be seen -- whether at the edge of a shrub border, beneath dwarf rhodies, or mixed with edging along the front walk -- and you're likely to be asked their story. Any fun factoid will do.