A Small Beauty: Purple Milkwort

As we walked the path between the woods and the meadow at the Pole Farm section of Mercer Meadows, Wood Nymphs flitted in and out of the foliage, Monarchs flew by, some mating, and a Clouded Sulphur dipped into the path to lay eggs, the tip of her abdomen touching the leaves of White Clover for a split second each.

Monarch butterflies mating

Wood Nymph

Glancing down, I saw a small group of plants that at first glance looked like a type of clover.

Purple Milkwort (Polygala sanguinea).

But it wasn’t clover. The plants had narrow, alternate leaves, and the tiny flowers were tightly packed into a somewhat flat-topped cylindrical cluster.  It was Purple Milkwort (Polygala sanguinea).

In profile, the outside of the flowers in the cluster (inflorescence) look like overlapping scales, similar to those on a pine cone. These scale-like structures are sepals, the outermost appendage of a flower.  When present, sepals protect the other flower parts as they mature.  In Purple Milkwort, two sepals fuse to form these scale-like outer flower parts, each for a separate flower.

Purple Milkwort (Polygala sanguinea), with unknown insect, probably a beetle, investigating its flowers

Viewed from the top, the inflorescence looks like a single very showy flower.

Purple Milkwort (Polygala sanguinea)

A closer inspection tells a different story. The outermost layers of the display look like white petals dipped in purple, but they are the sepals visible when the flower cluster is viewed in profile.  Moving inward, there are tube-like structures, in luscious shades of yellow, peach and a deep bright pink, reminiscent of popsicle colors.  These tubes are the fused petals of the individual flowers that form this cohesive cluster. At the very center of the inflorescence is a bouquet of buds that have not yet opened.  Together these flowers and buds offer an impressive show.

Purple Milkwort (Polygala sanguinea). The fused petals form a tube, initially yellow, then fading to peach and deep pink.

What explains the different colors of the floral tubes? If you look carefully, the yellow flowers are closest to the center of the display.  They are the most recently in bloom, open for business, the bright yellow actively beckoning pollinators.  The peach flowers have been open longer, and are shutting down.  The deep pink flowers have been in bloom the longest, and are no longer seeking pollinators for themselves.   This kind of color change is usually a plant adaptation to direct pollinators only to the receptive flowers that have not yet been pollinated.  It makes the most efficient use of the pollinator’s efforts from the perspective of both the pollinator and the plant.  While the peach and pink flowers are not beckoning pollinators for themselves, they continue to add to the attractiveness of the overall floral display.

This brightly colored display works! It attracts small to medium sized bees and bee-flies with tongues long enough to reach down the floral tube for a nectar reward.  The photos below show a Sweat Bee (Halictid bee, Augochlorini tribe) exploring the flowers.

Sweat Bee (Halictid bee, Augochlorini tribe) exploring a Purple Milkwort (Polygala sanguinea) inflorescence

Sweat Bee (Halictid bee, Augochlorini tribe) positioning its proboscis for a drink from a Purple Milkwort (Polygala sanguinea) flower

Mmmm, delicious! Sweat Bee (Halictid bee, Augochlorini tribe) drinking nectar from a Purple Milkwort (Polygala sanguinea) flower

Purple Milkwort can be found in the ground cover layer of meadows, prairies, open fields and woods edges from Nova Scotia west to Ontario in Canada, and in much of the eastern two-thirds of the United States, except Florida. It can grow to a height of four to sixteen inches (1-4 dm).  Both the common and scientific names reflect the color of the flowers and the milky sap the plant contains.  The genus, Polygala, is derived from Greek words that mean ‘many or much’ and ‘milk’, referring to the sap.  The species, sanguinea, is derived from a word that means ‘blood’.  Other common names for Purple Milkwort are Blood or Field Milkwort, reflecting its color or habitat.  Although common, it’s not always easy to spot this little beauty.

Follow the camera lens to the Purple Milkwort in the shadows in the lower left of the photo.


Mauseth, James D. Botany An Introduction to Plant Biology.  2014.

Rhoads, Ann Fowler; Block, Timothy A. The Plants of Pennsylvania.  2007

Stearn, William T. Stearn’s Dictionary of Plant Names.  1996

Wilson, Joseph S.; Carril, Olivia Messinger. The Bees in Your Backyard. 2016.

Flora of Wisconsin

Illinois Wildflowers

Minnesota Wildflowers

USDA NRCS Plants Database



First Monarchs of the Season

Monarch butterfly on Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa), in the meadow at Pennswood Village, Newtown, PA

Monarch butterfly on Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa), in the meadow at Pennswood Village, Newtown, PA

In the past week, I’ve seen Monarchs in three different locations.  (This is the only one that would pose for me!)  Cause for optimism?  Have you seen any Monarchs this summer?

Milkweed – It’s Not Just for Monarchs

One of the most well known associations between an animal and plant species is the relationship between Monarch butterflies and Milkweed.  Monarch butterflies may certainly be seen nectaring at various species of milkweeds…

Monarch nectaring on Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)

Monarch nectaring on Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)

Monarch nectaring on Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa)

Monarch nectaring on Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa)

Monarch nectaring on Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)

Monarch nectaring on Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)

but this isn’t unique – they also drink at a wide variety of other flower species.

Monarch nectaring on New York Ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis)

Monarch nectaring on New York Ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis)

It’s the dependency that Monarchs have on Milkweeds as the only food source for their caterpillars that makes this relationship so noteworthy. Monarchs, like many species of insects, have evolved to specialize in their larval (in this case caterpillar) food source in order to gain protection from predators through the chemicals they ingest from the plants they eat. Milkweeds contain cardiac glycosides, which are toxic to many species of birds and mammals. Plants have evolved these chemicals to protect themselves from being eaten, a strategy that has largely been successful for the plants. Plants are all about surviving and reproducing, to further the continued existence of their species.

Such a plan for protection is never completely foolproof, however. Monarchs, along with some other insect species, have evolved to be able to digest these plants and sequester the toxins in their bodies, making the insect unpalatable at best and toxic at worst to anyone inexperienced enough to attempt to eat them. As a reminder to bird or mammal predators who sample such an insect and survive to eat another meal, insects with these toxins have also evolved to have bright warning colors, an easy to remember signal to predators to beware before attempting such a meal again. In exchange for this protection obtained from eating Milkweeds, Monarchs are gambling that this food source will continue to be available. Without it, Monarchs won’t survive.

Monarch Caterpiller on Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)

Monarch Caterpiller on Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)

Monarch Caterpiller on Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)

Monarch Caterpiller on Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)

Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa) with Monarch Caterpiller

Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa) with Monarch Caterpiller

Monarchs are not alone in their use of Milkweeds. Their copious nectar offerings attract a broad range of butterflies to drink at their flowers, from Eastern Tiger Swallowtails,

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail and Bumble Bee on Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail and Bumble Bee on Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)

to the smallest skippers.

Least Skipper on Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)

Least Skipper on Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)

Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)

Tawny-edged Skipper on Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)

Tawny-edged Skipper on Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)

and Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa)

Sleepy Orange and Andrena bee on Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa)

Sleepy Orange and Andrena bee on Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa)

as well as other milkweed species are also favorites of butterflies, bees, and other insects that are nectar feeders, for their reliable, sweet, high energy food.

Butterflies benefit from the food offered by milkweeds, and in return they do help the plants with pollination, but they are not the most successful pollinators of milkweeds. Milkweeds have bundles of pollen, called pollinia, that are linked in pairs by a thin filament. This connector snags an insect appendage that is inserted in just the right spot in a flower. An insect has to approach the flower in a way that will engage the filament connecting the pollinia, and it must also be robust enough to remove the pollinia from the flower in order to assist the plant in cross pollination. The pollinia is carried by the insect to another flower, and inserted by the same mechanism.

Take a look at the Eastern Comma below. It’s perched on top of a flower, using its straw-like proboscis to sip nectar from a Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) flower. With this approach, a butterfly isn’t that likely to be helping this Milkweed out with pollination.

Eastern Comma on Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)

Eastern Comma on Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)

This Bumble Bee, on the other hand, is facing the flower, with its left front leg inserted in the very location where the pollinia are stored. This bee is engaging the pollen sacs, and has the heft to be able to escape from the flower with them clinging to its leg.

Bumble Bee engaging pollinia of Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)

Bumble Bee engaging pollinia of Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)

If you look carefully at the bee’s left front leg in the photo below, you can see the yellow pollinia attached to it.

Bumble Bee with pollinia of Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)

Bumble Bee with pollinia of Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)

Large bees, such as Bumble Bees and Carpenter Bees, are among the most successful intermediaries in Milkweed pollination. Common Milkweed flowers release a potent fragrance to attract bees to assist them in their reproduction.

Many other insects take advantage of the nectar bounty offered by Milkweeds, including the Snowberry Clearwing Moth (Hemaris diffinis).

Snowberry Clearwing Moth (Hemaris diffinis) and Oleander Aphids (Aphis nerii) on Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)

Snowberry Clearwing Moth (Hemaris diffinis) and Oleander Aphids (Aphis nerii) on Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)

There’s another insect species dining on this Swamp Milkweed. Do you see the little yellow critters on the stem? You might be thinking, “Eeuuw! Aphids!” If so, you would be half right. These are Oleander Aphids (Aphis nerii), a species frequently found on Milkweeds. But you might want to re-think the “Eeuuw!” It turns out that aphids are an important part of the food chain.

Aphids rarely really harm a plant.  And they offer a sustainable food source in the form of honeydew, a sweet excrement that ants love. The ants protect aphids in exchange for this tasty meal. Ants are essential for aerating soil, decomposing plant matter, dispersing seeds, and in some cases protecting plants from other predators.

Ants tending aphids on Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)

Ants tending aphids on Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)

Aphids are also a food source for other insects. In the photo below, this Oleander Aphid is being parasitized by two predators at once! It’s being bitten in the butt (abdomen) by a Convergent Lady Beetle (Hippodamia convergens) larva, who plans to consume the aphid. Notice also the bulge on the lower left side of the aphid. That is likely the result of a braconid wasp parasitizing the aphid. The adult female wasp lays an egg inside the aphid, with its resulting offspring consuming the aphid from the inside, leaving an empty husk.  Insects could be the inspiration for zombie and vampire stories!(There’s a white squiggly thing on the lady beetle larva that I’m guessing may also be a predator, but so far I haven’t identified it.  If you know what it is, let me know!)

Lady Beetle larvae biting aphid that shows signs (bubble) of being parasitized by a braconid wasp.

Lady Beetle larva biting aphid that shows signs (bubble) of being parasitized by a braconid wasp.

If you’re really observant you may have noticed that this scene was taking place on half of a Common Milkweed leaf, with the right side of the leaf missing. Wondering how that happened?  It’s the way Milkweed Tussock Moth (Euchaetes egle) caterpillars feed, neatly chewing side by side, stopping at the midrib.

Milkweed Tussock Moth (Euchaetes egle) Caterpillers

Milkweed Tussock Moth (Euchaetes egle) Caterpillers

Another insect that feeds on milkweed leaves is the Red Milkweed Beetle (Tetraopes tetraophthalmus). This clever creature bites through the midrib of the leaf in a few spots near the leaf tip. This stops the milky latex-like sap from flowing to that part of the leaf, making it possible for the beetle to eat it without having its mouthparts glued together by the sticky substance.

Red Milkweed Beetle (Tetraopes tetraophthalmus) on Common Milkweed

Red Milkweed Beetle (Tetraopes tetraophthalmus) on Common Milkweed

Even Milkweed seeds are a source of food for insects like the Small (Lygaeus kalmii) and Large (Oncopeltus fasciatus) Milkweed Bugs.  Adults may also consume nectar.

Swamp Milkweed with Large Milkweed Bugs (Oncopeltus fasciatus) , adults and nymphs

Swamp Milkweed with Large Milkweed Bugs (Oncopeltus fasciatus) , adults and nymphs

Small Milkweed Bug (Lygaeus kalmii) on Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa)

Small Milkweed Bug (Lygaeus kalmii) on Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa)

All of these insects sport bright colors that warn birds and mammals to avoid eating them. Insect and arthropod predators including the Lady Beetles, wasps, assassin bugs, spiders and Praying Mantises (or Mantids) are not put off, however. They may consume not just nectar feeders, but foliage and seed feeders, too.

Assassin Bug (Pselliopus cinctus) and Bumble Bee on Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)

Assassin Bug (Pselliopus cinctus) and Bumble Bee on Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)

Many of these predators are safe for birds and other predators to eat.  A large percentage of a bird’s diet consists of insects, especially when they are raising their young.

Female Indigo Bunting with lunch

Female Indigo Bunting with lunch

Birds also benefit from Milkweeds by using them as nesting material. The fluffy hairs attached to the seeds can make a soft lining for a Goldfinch nest.

Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) dispersing seeds

Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) dispersing seeds

Most Milkweeds also have strong fibers in their stems that birds use to weave nests, including Northern Orioles

Northern Oriole Nest

Northern Oriole Nest

and Yellow Warblers.

Yellow Warbler

Yellow Warbler

Milkweeds are essential to the continued survival of the Monarch butterfly. They are a copious nectar source for our beleaguered bee populations, and offer food to many other beneficial insects. They’re a source of insect protein and nest material for birds and other animals.  Milkweeds – they’re vital for Monarchs, and a whole host of other species, too.

Butterflyweed with Monarch, Great Spangled Fritillary, and Pearl Crescent

Butterflyweed with Monarch, Great Spangled Fritillary, and Pearl Crescent


Eastman, John. The Book of Field and Roadside. 2003.

Eastman, John. The Book of Swamp and Bog. 1995.

Eaton, Eric R.; Kauffman, Ken. Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America. 2007.

Harrison, Hal H. Eastern Birds’ Nests. 1975

Tallamy, Douglas W. Bringing Nature Home, 2007,

USDA Plants Database