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Polygalas are fast becoming firm favourites with eco-conscious gardeners

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Polygala myrtifoliaPolygala myrtifoliaPolygalas bloom for a long time in the garden, and are not only charming, but also pretty tough and obliging, growing inland and at the coast. They are low maintenance, water-wise plants, which can be grown in semi-shade and full sun. And, because they also attract wildlife to the garden, polygalas have caught the attention of eco-conscious gardeners around the country.

Members of this large family of plants occur in temperate and warm climates around the world; and include perennials, shrubs and trees. Some of the other common names for them include milkwort and false legume. Although their pea-like flowers resemble those of legumes, polygalas are easily distinguished from legumes by the feathery tuft on their lower petals.

There are approximately 88 species of Polygala that occur in southern Africa, and they are especially prolific in the south-western Cape; and common from near Clanwilliam in the Western Cape, to Kwazulu-Natal. However, polygala can be found growing wild in both the summer and winter rainfall regions of South Africa, and in most provinces. These showy indigenous plants are widespread pioneer shrubs, which can commonly be found growing on dunes and rocky slopes, as well as in scrub and open grasslands; thriving in forests, and alongside streams.

Polygala virgata Picture courtesy www.newplant.co.zaPolygala virgata Picture courtesy www.newplant.co.zaPolygala virgata Picture courtesy www.newplant.co.zaPolygala species vary in growth habit but they all have upright-growing stems and gracefully slender branches, densely covered with glossy, myrtle-like leaves, which can be green or slightly grey. Flowers come in shades of mauve or purple, but can also be pink, scarlet, or white; and although they can appear sporadically throughout the year, flowering peaks in late winter, spring, and early summer. Light brown fruits follow the flowers, and seedlings often germinate close to the parent plant.

Because polygalas come in tall and dwarf forms, grow very quickly, and do not have invasive roots, they are perfect for gardens large and small – even a small balcony garden could support one. And considering their toughness and attraction for wildlife, why not spoil yourself, and mother-nature with one of our very own beauties – you won’t be disappointed!

(Polygala myrtifolia) is the most well-known polygala and can be found growing wild in both the summer and winter rainfall regions; from Niewoudtville in the north-western Cape to the south-western and Eastern Cape, extending into KwaZulu-Natal, and northern Lesotho. It occurs in a wide variety of habitats, like dune scrub, grassy slopes, and along the margins of forests and streams. This polygala is saline tolerant and a perfect coastal and pioneer plant. It is drought hardy once established, withstanding long periods of drought and high temperatures. It is also able to survive low temperatures and moderate frost, but in colder regions, will require protection in winter. This polygala varies in height and spread, depending on climatic conditions, but generally forms a medium-sized shrub +-1 to 3m tall, with an attractive rounded crown and an almost equal spread. Its glossy, myrtle-like leaves are variable in shape, and the flowers come in shades of magenta and mauve, to white. Flowering can occur intermittently throughout the year, but is especially prolific in late winter to early spring and summer, peaking in October. Some forms of P. myrtifolia have thin, needle-like leaves, and can grow into a small tree, about 4m tall.

(Polygala myrtifolia 'Glentana') is similar to P. myrtifolia, and produces purple flowers, but is much shorter, with a more compact growth habit, and smaller leaves.

(Polygala myrtifolia ‘White Feathers') is similar to P. myrtifolia, but bears an abundance of white flowers from August to October, and sporadically throughout summer. Its leaves are also slightly greyer, making this polygala a perfect contrast for many other flowering shrubs, of various leaf forms and colours.

Polygala fruitcosa Picture courtesy www.newplant.co.zaPolygala fruitcosa Picture courtesy www.newplant.co.zaPolygala fruitcosa Picture courtesy www.newplant.co.za(Polygala fruticosa) has a long flowering time during the summer months, but reaches its peak between September and November, carrying its magenta flowers at the tips of its branches. The green-grey leaves are also most attractive. It occurs from the south-western Cape to KwaZulu-Natal; grows up to 2m tall; and tolerates acid or alkaline, sandy and clay soils, as long as they drain well. Because it grows naturally next to the sea it is an ideal shrub for coastal gardens, but it will also tolerate moderate frost once established. When young, protect it in winter, and try to site it in a sheltered part of the garden.

(Polygala fruticosa 'Southern Shores') was selected by Kirstenbosch horticulturalists for its round and compact growth habit, +-1m tall. This popular polygala has attractive, bluish-green leaves and rewards the gardener with masses of dark magenta flowers. Because it grows naturally next to the sea it is an ideal small shrub for coastal gardens, tolerating drought and high temperatures with ease. It is a wonderful container plant, does well in a mixed border, and grows very well in rockeries, on slopes, and in retaining walls.

(Polygala fruticosa 'Petite') is a hardy, little shrub, growing 40cm to 1m tall, with clusters of magenta flowers from August to May. It is hardy to frost if protected when young; and tolerates quite dry conditions. The shiny, grey-green, heart-shaped leaves have red margins, and the young leaves are a shiny, coppery pink. This beautiful plant is great in a mixed border, rockeries, retaining walls, or containers.

(Polygala virgata) is a slender evergreen shrub with a willowy branched crown, growing +-1.5 to 2.5m tall. It grows wild in both the winter and summer rainfall regions of the country; from the southern Cape to Limpopo, and extending into tropical East and West Africa. It grows naturally along forest margins and next to streams, on bushy hillsides, and on sandstone, clay, or limestone slopes. This outstanding garden plant produces masses of erect or drooping sprays of purplish-magenta or pink flowers for up to six weeks in spring, but often flowers intermittently throughout the year. Forms of this species that originate in the Drakensberg are very hardy to frost. This polygala thrives in acid, sandy soils, but will also tolerate alkaline clay soil. Although it is moderately drought hardy once established; it will also grow in seasonally moist spots. Because it is such a slender shrub it is ideal for small and large gardens; and in large gardens it gives a better effect if it is planted in groups.

Uses:

An interesting use for Polygala myrtifolia, recorded by Pappe, a German doctor and botanist who emigrated to the Cape in 1832 states that the Cape Malays scraped off the fresh grey bark, which they mixed with water and stirred until it frothed, and then used this for washing their dead before burial. This custom, which is now long in disuse, is the reason why, in the Cape this plant is known as “langelier” or” langelede” and probably a corruption of the Afrikaans “lange lede” meaning long joints.

In KwaZulu-Natal Polygala myrtifolia is still recognised today for its antibacterial, antimicrobial, and antifungal properties; and tests done by the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg found that aqueous extracts of P. myrtifolia showed activity against Candida albicans (which causes oral candidiasis.)

In the Garden:

Colourful and free flowering - polygalas are low maintenance plants that require very little watering once established, making them ideal to plant in the low water usage area of your garden, and in rock gardens. Because they will grow in sun or semi-shade they are perfect for those difficult garden beds that change from full sun to semi-shade with the seasons. They are wonderful for coastal gardens, and a valuable addition to fynbos or Mediterranean gardens. Plant them in shrub borders and on the fringes of woodland gardens, or plant them closely together for an excellent fast growing windbreak or informal screen or hedge. In tiny gardens the taller growing species can even be trained into a small tree. The smaller growing species grow well in containers and make pretty border plants.  

The flowers last well in a vase and will attract many insects to the garden, and especially butterflies, honey and carpenter bees. The insects will attract insect-eating birds, and the seeds are relished by laughing doves and other seed-eating birds.

Cultivation:

Polygalas are evergreen low maintenance plants which grow quickly, and there are species available for all climates. Some forms are very frost hardy, and all are suitable for windy, coastal gardens. They adapt to most soil types, but prefer well-drained soils that are moderately fertile, so add compost to impoverished soils. Water young plants regularly until they are well established, after which they are quite drought hardy. Mulch the roots to retain moisture during hot, dry spells. Polygalas love full sun, but will also grow well in semi-shade. Trim after flowering to maintain a bushy shape. An occasional feeding with 3:1:5 will be sufficient to maintain good plant health, and will encourage more flowers.

Propagation:

Polygalas grow easily from seed and can seed themselves readily around the garden. They are also easily propagated by cuttings taken in spring or autumn.

Pests & Diseases:

If they are grown correctly, polygalas suffer from no serious pests or diseases.

Warning:

We did not find the species described here listed anywhere as toxic plants, but it is always wise to supervise small children and pets in the garden.

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