July 8, 2014 at 10:23 pm

Polygala smallii: Rescuing a Federally Endangered Species


Polygala smallii has a short inflorescence of yellow-green flowers. This was one of three individuals we came across during our three days of searching.

By Evan Apt ’15
Summer intern at Fairchild Botanic Garden

Hello again. For the past two weeks I have been working with the conservation staff at Fairchild Tropical Garden working to rescue endangered plants from an area that is about to cleared for development.

I am happy to announce that after three days of searching we finally came across this little guy, Polygala smallii. Polygala smallii is a rare species of flowering plant in the milkwort family known by the common name tiny polygala, or tiny milkwort. This species is listed as federally endangered and is endemic to Florida, where it is limited to the southern coast of the peninsula. Currently, Polygala smallii is only found in eight sites throughout southern florida, one of which our team was able to explore. 

Smallii pic

Distribution map of Polygala smallii. Within these areas, this species is limited to pine rockland and florida scrub habitats, both of which are becoming increasingly scarce. Photo from Atlas of Florida Vascular Plants

This species is a petite biennial herb that can grow 2 to 4 centimeters tall from the top of its taproot. The leaves are spatula-shaped and form a rosette at the base of the stems. They are closely packed and measure up to about 3.5 centimeters in length.  The plants have an aboveground lifespan of about 180 days, after which they disappear until the next wildfire sweeps the area.  Infrequent burning regiments are a death sentence for this species.  Polygala smallii  requires open spaces with sunlight and tolerates disturbance, and it resprouts readily after wildfire has affected the habitat.  Conservation of this plants habitat must involve periodic prescribed burns or some other method of opening the overgrown canopy. Fire may be the key to the germination of this species’ seeds: experiments have shown 50% more germination and faster germination in seeds that had been exposed to smoke.


The three Polygala smallii plants we found are back at the greenhouse and doing well!

The site we were permitted to explore and collect in was an old abandoned primate testing facility located in southern Miami-Dade county. The property was recently sold to developers with plans of building a Walmart. A large portion of the land is made up of South Florida pine rockland habitat, which is under threat due to commercial development of land. We were contacted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who then allowed us to search the land for anything we could save. The land had been private property for the past 80+ years, so nobody was really sure what was growing there. After three days of searching we had collected tons of material, but mostly just native plants we had been contracted to collect. As we were heading out on the last day, one of the team leaders stumbled across a small patch of three Polygala smallii.  


This is an example of what South Florida pine rockland habitat looks like. This type of habitat is maintained by fire. Palms and cycads dominate the understory with Florida slash pine composing most of the tree cover. Soils are extremely thin.

Since this area was about to be clear cut and plowed, we were permitted to take anything we found back with us to Fairchild Garden. We collected a few palms, some neat prickly pear cactus and grasses/sedges for out-planting around the roadsides of Miami-Dade County. The locations where we found Polygala smallii were recorded via GPS, and we then sent the data to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to assist in their monitoring program. I was so glad to be able to help out with this rescue. It was an awesome experience and I hope to be involved in more in the future!


Cool mushroom I found while searching in the area

Feel free to follow me on instagram (new pics daily)! Follow @theysayimapt

Evan Apt is studying Environmental & Plant Biology at Ohio University and is currently interning at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Coral Gables, FL.

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