Daily Flower Candy: Polygala myrtifolia

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Polygala myrtifolia: myrtle-leaf milkwort, September bush, Augustusbossie


At the end of the summer I often buy plants to plug gaps in the garden, with no expectation that they will flower for more than six to eight weeks. They are simply there to do a job, and keep the display going through autumn, until cold weather arrives. So it was that I ended up with a tall pot planted with three myrtle-leaf milkworts, their purple flowers clashing with everything else I was growing. The last time I grew this plant was at least fifteen years ago when I was living in Reading, where I had a tiny garden backing onto a cemetery. I recall considering this cheerful little shrub terribly exotic and unusual, so I was pleased to rediscover it in my local garden centre.

Polygala myrtifolia occurs naturally from the Bokkeveld Mountains, near Clanwilliam in South Africa’s Western Cape, to Kwazulu-Natal. In its natural habitat it is a fast-growing pioneer of forest margins, sand dunes, rocky coasts and open grasslands, adapting its stature and shape to suit the environment it finds itself in. Polygala myrtifolia forms part of the fynbos ecosystem, which has some climatic similarity to the Mediterranean, which means mild, wet winters followed by hot, dry summers. Growing to a maximum height of between two and four metres, depending on situation, Polygala myrtifolia can quickly make a large shrub or small tree.



The arching stems of Polygala myrtifolia are lined with small, waxy, grey-green leaves which resemble those of myrtle, hence ‘myrtifolia‘. (Polygala is an old Greek name derived from the words polys, meaning much, and gala, meaning milk. This is because some members of the milkwort genus have a reputation for promoting the secretion of milk in cows.) Each branch is terminated by a cluster of bright, purplish-pink flowers which resemble those of a legume at first, but are actually rather different. Instead of the pronounced ‘banner’ petal at the back of the flower (think sweet-peas), they have an extravagantly fringed, brush-like keel at the front. The petals can be pink, magenta, purple or white. My plants were flowering when I purchased them in September and have not stopped since: the photograph below was taken on the first weekend in January. Polygala myrtifolia is not phased by the salt and sand-laden gales we’ve experienced this winter (unlike my camera skills), and together with Bulbine frutescens and yellow argyranthemums is bravely spinning the essence of summer through the darkest days of winter. It would make a very nice feature plant in a dry, gravel garden, or casual edging to a raised bed, and is perfectly happy in a pot.

Polygala myrtifolia is an easy, accommodating plant for a mild, coastal garden, but probably needs winter protection in a cold or cool greenhouse elsewhere. It is happy growing in most soil types, provided they are well-drained, and likes full sun or lightly-dappled shade. Once established, plants are drought tolerant and, best of all, common pests seem completely disinterested. Untidy plants can be pruned if they become too lax, and, if you want more, they are readily propagated from seed or stem cuttings. All-in-all, a pleasing garden plant whether you’re looking for a permanent specimen or something fabulous to fill a gap when everything else is looking tired. TFG.

Lead image: Promesse de Fleurs


Categories: Container gardening, Daily Flower Candy, Flowers, Foliage, Our Coastal Garden, Plants, Small Gardens

Posted by The Frustrated Gardener

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20 comments On "Daily Flower Candy: Polygala myrtifolia"

  1. Oh I am pleased to see this plant feature in your flower candies ! It grew in front of my parents’ block of flats in Mediterranean Toulon. My parents have now left that town which I had grown to love, especially for the mountains, or “hills” as the locals call them, on its Northern edge. I miss it, and miss the lovely plants there. Thank you again.

  2. The Polygala dalmaisiana is the only one I know here. I just featured it recently, but it is not one of my favorites. ‘Gardeners’ do not know how to work with it.

  3. I bought a pot of Polygala my from Tesco a couple of years ago. Had it for two summers, and then lost it!!! Love that last photo. HAPPY NEW YEAR to you!

  4. The volatile oil found in M communis is the fascinating element of the plant for me. Is yours fragrant as well ? Some say your olfactory sense is most dominant for some. When I was in Italy this autumn I drank an aromatic liqueur made of the crushed berries. It was awful, awful and thank goodness for gin. I have what we call creeping myrtle or Vinca minor all over my 6b Toronto garden. I’m not even sure if its myrtle at all but when it blooms all those periwinkle blue stars makes me gasp.

    1. I have a bottle of myrtillo in a cupboard somewhere. Purchased in Sardinia many moons ago. Neither Polygala nor vinca are directly related but both are good for a splash of winter colour here in the UK. Polygala is not fragrant so as I have noticed. Dan

  5. it’s strange that this plant is so hard to find considering plants like coprosma are less hardy and sold everywhere. Where abouts did you get your myrtifolia from? I got dalmaisiana from lullingstone but have never noticed it anywhere else. I’ve been looking for myrtifolia after seeing a YouTube video that said myrtifolia was the better of the two.

  6. Hi
    I bought a small tree last September and planted it in the garden. It did really well up until 2 months ago….. The leaves have turned yellow and dried. Everything else around it is still thriving well so I can’t understand what I’ve done wrong!! I don’t know whether I should leave it and see if comes back or bin it.

    1. March was very cold, so a mixture of cold and wet may have finished it off. This is a plant from South Africa, so our winters do not provide ideal growing conditions.

      My top tip is to scratch the stems with your finger nail. If you exposure green beneath the surface it’s alive. If it’s brown, then the plant is probably dead. However, I’d leave it a while longer to see if it shoot from the base or low down the plant.

      Meanwhile I am sorry you didn’t have greater success. I think it would be worth trying again. Dan

  7. i see myrtifolia is for sale again and im thinking about getting one. Did your polygala make it through last winter? Im guessing most would have been killed by lower than -5c.

  8. Hi there ,
    I lost a beautiful 2 meter plant last month when leaves suddenly turned yellow, this week i discovered another myrtifolia 2 meters that is perfectly healthy is turning yellow. Its very sad to loose them after all these years, does anyone know why ?

    1. Mine has just done exactly the same, seemed fine one moment and the next, all the leaves are yellow in colour, I’d also love to know if there is a way to revive my not so long ago, beautiful purple & green tree ?

      1. It’s quite difficult to advise you without seeing the plant. It could be either over or under watering. It might also be extreme heat. I suggest first tipping the plant out of the pot to see if the rootball is dry or wet and whether the roots are healthy. Scratching the surface of the bark near the base of the plant will reveal if the plant is still alive. Green and it’s healthy wood, brown or black and it’s dead or dying. I wish you luck! Dan

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