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.
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 myrtle-like leaves.
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).