Polygala myrtifolia is a common, widespread pioneer shrub
with pretty mauve flowers on and off throughout the year with a
peak in spring, hence the names Augustusbossie and September bush.
myrtifolia varies in form as it changes to adapt to the different
areas it grows in, from the harshness of the coast to the drier
inland climates. An evergreen shrub, the most common forms reach
about 0.6 to 1.8 m in height with a few upright-growing stems and
slender branches densely covered with leaves that resemble myrtle.
The oval-shaped leaves are usually 25-50 mm long and up to 13 mm
wide. The leaves are light green, dark green or slightly grey. Some
forms of P. myrtifolia have thin, needle-like leaves. It
can also grow into a small tree reaching almost 4 m high.
The buds are green, flat, marked with dark veins and oval to half-moon-shaped.
The lower buds open first. The flowers are carried in small clusters
at the ends of short branches and look a bit like legume (pea or
bean) flowers, but are actually quite different. Close inspection
will reveal that although they have two wings and a keel, they lack
the banner (also called standard) petal. All polygalas also have
a showy, and very distinctive brush-like tuft on the keel. The showy
petals, beautifully marked with darker veins, are usually in shades
of mauve or purple, but can also be pink scarlet, or white. Polygala
myrtifolia has blooms throughout the year with a peak in spring
( August to October) when the plants flower profusely. The fruit
is a small, winged capsule.
Polygala myrtifolia occurs naturally from the Bokkeveld Mountains
near Clanwilliam in the Western Cape to Kwazulu-Natal. Along this
wide distribution area changing from winter to summer rainfall,
it is commonly found growing on dunes, rocky slopes, in forests,
along streams, in scrub and open grassland.
The milkwort family (Polygalaceae) occurs nearly world-wide with
17 genera and 950 species. Of the 400-450 African species, 32 occur
in the Cape region. The genus Poygala consists of about 600 species
with 232 species in Africa and Madagascar of which approximately
88 species occur in southern Africa. Other local species grown in
gardens include Polygala fruticosa
and Polygala virgata.
Derivation of the name and historical aspects
Polygala is an old Greek name from the words polys
meaning much and gala meaning milk, the name given to this
genus for some of its members which have the reputation for promoting
the secretion of milk. The species name myrtifolia means
An interesting use for this polygala was recorded by Pappe , a
German doctor and botanist who emigrated to the Cape in 1832. Pappe
says 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 dated back
long before Pappe recorded it in 1860, but it is now long in disuse.
Because of this use, the plant was known in the Cape as langelier
or langelede, probably a corruption of the Afrikaans lange
lede meaning long joints.
In KwaZulu-Natal Polygala myrtifolia is one of the many
plants known for its antibacterial, antimicrobial and antifungal
properties. Tests run by the University of Natal at Pietermaritzburg
have found that aqueous extracts of P. myrtifolia showed
activity against Candida albicans (which causes oral candidiasis).
Growing Polygala myrtifolia
Polygala myrtifolia is an attractive evergreen shrub able
to adapt to most gardens and gardeners. A tough shrub suitable for
coastal gardens, fynbos gardens, low maintenance and water-wise
gardens. In the new garden it is excellent as a fast growing windbreak,
hedge and colourful shrub able to grow in most soil types from full
sun to semi-shade. Its growth is a bit more lax, producing fewer
flowers in the shade, but it grows happily in the difficult pockets
that change from full sun to semi-shade with the seasons.
mentioned, there are different forms of Polygala myrtifolia.
At Kirstenbosch we have selected a beautiful, white-flowering form
called P. myrtifolia 'White Feathers'. When in full flower
from August to October the whole bush is covered with white flowers,
a spectacular show. The leaves of the white form are slightly greyer
and are lovely when contrasted with other leaves, forms and colours.
Polygala myrtifolia responds well to light pruning, which
encourages a more bushy habit, but it is not necessary to prune
if its full height and shape will not cause a problem in the garden
design. Older plants can start to look untidy and woody, but at
Kirstenbosch we have plants older then 15 years that still look
good. Seedlings often germinate close to the parents.
Polygala myrtifolia can easily be propagated from seed and
tip cuttings preferably taken in spring and autumn. In Western Cape
the best time to plant is during the winter to allow the plants
time to establish themselves before the dry, warm summer. With a
thick mulch, P. myrtifolia would need very little watering
- 2001. Annual report. School of Botany and Zoology, University
of Natal, Pietermaritzburg at http://www.botany.unp.ac.za
- Coates Palgrave, M. 2002. Keith Coates Palgrave Trees of
southern Africa, edn 3. Struik, Cape Town.
- Goldblatt, P. & Manning, J. 2002. Cape plants. A conspectus
of the Cape flora of South Africa. Strelitzia 9.
- National Botanical Institute, Pretoria & Missouri Botanical
- Palmer, E. & Pitman, J. 1972. Trees of southern Africa.
- Smith, C.A. 1966. Common names of South African plants. Memoirs
of the Botanical Survey of South Africa No. 35.
Liesl van der Walt
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden