Interesting little plant with pretty little blue flowers. Likes full sun in most zones but some shade in hotter ones. hardy to zone 6 possibly 5. Does best in well drained soil and some organic material with regular light watering, does not like waterlogged soils or too much watering. Can be fairly drought tolerant once established but should be cared for in first year. Low growing usually not more than 8-10 inches (20.3-25.4cm) flowers prolifically in summer months makes good border plant prefers looser soil which is easier if growing for root harvest. powerful medicinal herb so often grown more for the roots than the flowers. Wildlife will eat the roots and nibble at the foliage so some protect may be required.
Description of Chinese Milkwort or Yuan Zhi (Polygala tenuifolia).
Perennial most likely hardy to zone 6 possibly 5. Thin wiry stems with fine linear leaves that can be up to 1.5 inches (4cm) long and 1/10 inch (3mm) wide with sharp pointed ends. These are arranged sparsely on stems mostly alternately but sometimes on the same side. Stems terminate in leafless flower spikes with individual flowers arranged mostly alternately on the stem. Each flower is about 1.5 inches (4cm) long and blue in color. Flowers are fairly complex with two larger outer petals that are mostly oval that stand up at the back of the flower like 'bunny ears' these accent the main flower petal with is more tubular in shape with a large showy tassel attachment at the front which holds the stamens and stigma of the flower. The tassel makes the small flowers seem larger and showy, the whole arrangement is mostly blue in color but can at times be pink or slightly purple. Blooms open sequentially from the bottom to the top of the stalk in mid summer and are followed by small oval seed capsules. Plant form will vary by location in dryer sunny areas they form compact clumps with short stalks. In more shady areas with more water they tend to be more lanky with longer stems, wider spaced leaves and less stout stems. There is little information on hardiness of this plant so zones are suggestions until more data is available.
Growing Chinese Milkwort or Yuan Zhi (Polygala tenuifolia) from Seed.
Not difficult to grow from seed but may need extra care so we highly recommend starting inside where more control over seedlings is possible. Sow in seed trays or for better control individual cell trays in good potting compost and lightly cover the seeds with fine mix keep moist and place in well lit area either under lights ( not more than 14 inches (36cm) from the tray) or in sunny south facing window. Seeds usually germinate within 20 -25 days but will depend on temperatures. Since this plant grows mainly in cooler areas we do not recommend using heating pads. Once seedlings are large enough to handle pot into individual pots and grow on until plants are at least 3 inches (7.6cm) tall larger is better before transplanting out after a good hardening off stage. For more information on growing seeds see our General Growing Instructions.
While this is possible seedlings grow slowly to begin with and can easily be overrun by weeds before they can establish so we don't recommend this method.
Location and Care of Chinese Milkwort or Yuan Zhi (Polygala tenuifolia).
There is not much data on growing this plant and what there is, is very conflicting. So we can only offer advise from our experience growing in zone 6b.
After experimentation we grow in mostly full sun. The area gets morning sun but some shade during the middle of the day with sun again in the afternoon. We grow in light soil with good organic material and its well drained. Plants seem to be doing very well. Space plants 12-18 inches (30.4-46cm) plant after frost has passed.
This plant is originally from areas of China that are very similar to those in NE United states (in fact in geographical climate types it is known as "China Type". Thus the plants from there tend to grow quite well here if the locations are chosen to match fairly well.
Extrapolating from this we suggest:
Cooler zones. (6a and cooler) full sun all day possibly some shade midday in 6a. Mulch plants well in zones 5 and up we do not know if they will overwinter there but mulching will help keep them warm.
Zones 7 and warmer. Provide more shade and certainly from noonday sun the further south the more shade but light shade this plant gets lanky in too much shade.
Soil type. needs to be well drained but type does not seem to be a factor pH can be a little on the acid side. grows well in sandy and gravel like soils, most likely less in heavy clay.
Water. regular water until the plant is well established. In the wild these plants can be fairly drought tolerant suggest watering until established then regularly if there is no rain. A soaker hose that can provide water on an occasional basis would be ideal.
Pollinator and Wildlife with Chinese Milkwort or Yuan Zhi (Polygala tenuifolia).
The bees seem to like it. If growing in cooler zones where mulching is required keep a check on the plants as too much mulch can allow rodents to get to the plants and eat out the roots.
Harvesting Chinese Milkwort or Yuan Zhi (Polygala tenuifolia).
While this is a delightful little plant in its own right most people grow it for the roots. Since roots reach their best size after 2-3 years growing in an area where the overwinter is essential. Most commonly roots are dug in late autumn after the plants have died down or early spring before they have begun growing. Roots need to be fairly large to enable the hardwood core to be separated out.
Medical uses of Chinese Milkwort or Yuan Zhi (Polygala tenuifolia).
Used in Chinese Medicine for centuries for a plethora of different aliments this powerful herb has only recently been noted by western herbalists. Know as Yuan Zhi its foremost use is to treat the respiratory system for major issues such as bronchitis, and asthma its a powerful expectorant and calmative. Possessing unique phytochemicals that help calm the body as well as enhance mood and stimulate brain activity. This makes it useful as a mood enhancer for treatment of anxiety, poor memory, palpitations, and depression, especially in cases of excessive brooding and pent-up emotions. More concentrated research has determined that it seems to help protect the brain from deterioration making it extremely useful in the treatment of Alzheimer's disease, insomnia, neurosis and dementia. Other studies have shown that it may actually promote neural stem cell proliferation and differentiation and helping with new brain cell growth. Other studies have shown it can exerts rapid-onset antidepressant effects which may make it a safer substitute for such pharmaceutical antidepressants that also produce unacceptable side effects.
Other aliments that are treated with Polygala include, abscesses, boils, sores, painful breasts, carbuncles, irritability, palpitations due to fright, increasing saliva, epilepsy, and convulsion. Traditionally used as a tonic for the heart and kidney energies and promote restorative sleep.
Yuan Zhi, camellia leaf, Chinese milkwort, Chinese Senega, Klapperschlangen, Milkwort, mountain flax, Mountain Polygala, polygala root, Polygala senega, Polygalae radix, Rattlesnake Root, Senaga Snakeroot, Seneca, Seneca Snakeroot, Senega, Senega Snakeroot, Seneka, Siberian Milkwort, Snake Root, Thinleaf milkwort,
Polygala senega latifolia; Polygala tenuifolia, Polygala glomerata, Polygala japonica, Polygala reinii