An Overlooked Wildflower

Fringed Polygala (also Gaywings, Bird-on-the-wing and other common names) reportedly occurs in most counties in New York State, yet I seldom see this colorful, woodland gem. It’s tiny – just a few inches tall – so I have probably overlooked it on some of my field trips. Site preferences may also be a factor. The small colony that I visit each May occupies a well-drained, acidic, upland habitat in an oak-maple-hemlock woodland – an uncommon association in these parts that I don’t often visit.

When I discovered Fringed Polygala years ago, I was sure I was looking at an orchid and couldn’t wait to dig into my field guides to learn more. Apparently I wasn’t alone in my ignorance, because both of my reliable references said “Not an orchid — it’s in the Milkwort family”!

Photo by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

A Little Woodland Gem: Gaywings

On a recent nature walk I stumbled into a colony of tiny woodland wildflowers, a species that follows the early spring ephemerals but rivals or even exceeds them in beauty. It belongs to the Milkwort family and goes by various common names: Gaywings, Fringed Polygala, Flowering Wintergreen and Bird-on-the-wing. The last refers to the shape of the magenta-colored flower – a pair of sepals flaring out like wings from a tube-like center (fused petals).



This small, fragile, wildflower prefers mesic, acidic soils, sparse herbaceous competition on the forest floor and a forest canopy of hardwood or mixed hardwood and coniferous trees. The specimens that I photographed must have read the book, because this is precisely the type of habitat where they were growing.


Gaywings is widely distributed in northeastern U.S. It also occurs as far south as the mountains of Georgia and north into Canada.


All photos by NB Hunter