Gay Wings, or Fringed Milkwort, is a small trailing plant with purple flowers. The Latin name is Polygala paucifolia. Plants are typically 3 to 4 inches tall and flower in April and May, sometimes through to July. The stem is lanky. A few leaves cluster at the top of the stems and may be ovate or oblong
Gay Wings are widespread throughout northern Canada from New Brunswick to Saskatchewan and in the United States from the mountains of Georgia to Illinois and Minnesota. Gay Wings are woodland plants that grow in shade. They prefer moist, sandy, pine covered soils. They can be locally common but are often locally rare. Where common the colonies form from rhizomes that spread deep underground. In other places they are so rare that they are the star attraction within nature reserves. Gay Wings are on the endangered list in Ohio and Georgia.
The flowers form from a single stem. The flowers are delicate in colour and in structure. In early spring Gay Wings fill the forest with a carpet of flowers.
There roughly 500 species of Polygala. Some 75 of these species are Milkworts of which Gay Wings is a member.
The Gay Wing can be distinguished from other Milkworts by its flower. The flower has an unusual structure which is the reason for the alternative name of Fringed Milkwort. The flowers have double heads and are bounded by a fringe. There is a saying that the flower has one flower for beauty and one for use. When a bumblebee lands on the lip the flower opens the insect’s weight displaces the lower petal and the bumblebee gains access to the flower. When the bumblebee feeds on nectar some of the pollen gathered from previous plants rubs off onto the stigma. This fertilizes the plant.
In winter the plant dies back the leaves remain above ground. They become red and bronzed and are replaced each spring.
When it comes to propagation, growing from seed is generally better attempting to transplant the rhizome. When collecting seed it is a good idea to wrap the seed head with cloth while the seeds ripen. This is to prevent ants from stealing the seed.
Some people use Gay Wings as a natural remedy. The root has a sweet pungent taste. It is a stimulant, tonic and sudorific. The leaves are sometimes made into a tea.
Gay wings have a very wide range of local names. It is variously called wintergreen, bird-on-the-wing, evergreen snake root, may wings, Indian pink, little pollen, dwarf and just Milkwort.
This is a very pretty delicate plant which some people think resembles an orchid.