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).

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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.

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

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All photos by NB Hunter