Milkworts (family Polygalaceae) are seen most frequently in the Coastal Plain of North Carolina, although a few species are also found in the Piedmont. Polygala incarnata, Procession Flower, is probably the most common and widespread of the Piedmont natives. Also known as the Pink Milkwort or the Slender Milkwort, Polygala incarnata has a beautiful but small pink flower, with an elongated tube that is usually more than twice as long as the terminal petal wings.
Although Polygala incarnata is considered common, it can be difficult to spot in the field. It blooms in July and August when the other plants of open fields and power lines have grown tall and can hide the blooming stems. The flowers are only about ½ in. long and cluster in small numbers. The leaves are thin and linear, and lie along the stem, giving the impression that the plant has no leaves at all (hence the name Slender Milkwort). The leaves are barely visible in the following photo.
The common name Procession Flower is based on its historic use in garlands carried in religious processions celebrating the Fifth Sunday After Easter (Wildflowers of the Carolinas – Bowers, Bowers, and Tekiela). Procession Flowers must have occurred in large colonies, or perhaps still do in some areas, to supply enough plants for garlands.