Polygala paucifolia (Gaywings)

Plant Info
Also known as: Fringed Milkwort, Flowering Wintergreen
Family:Polygalaceae (Milkwort)
Life cycle:perennial
Habitat:part shade, shade; moist rich woods, acidic soil, often under pines
Bloom season:May - June
Plant height:3 to 7 inches
Wetland Indicator Status:none
MN county distribution (click map to enlarge):Minnesota county distribution map
National distribution (click map to enlarge):National distribution map

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Detailed Information

Flower: Flower shape: irregular

[photo of flower] Like a cluster of small birds taking to flight, one to four, pink to almost white flowers, each about ¾ inch across, emerge from leaf axils at the stem tip. Two broadly oval petal-like sepals are arranged opposite each other at flower base and flair out likes wings. Two more sepals are neatly wrapped around the center flower column, and a fifth, highly modified with delicate lavender fringes at the crest closes up the underside. The center column angles up and away at roughly 45 degrees from the plane of the wings. This plant also produces greatly reduced, flower structures under ground that produce seeds asexually (called cleistogamous).

Leaves and stem: Leaf attachment: alternate Leaf attachment: whorl Leaf type: simple

[photo of leaves] The above ground flowering branches are erect and produced from prostrate underground stems. These branches produce small scale-like lower leaves and a whorl of leaves at the branch tip, just below the flowers. The upper leaves are simple, oval to egg-shaped, ½ to ¾ inch wide and 1 to 1½ inches long, tapered at the both the base and into a point at the tip. Leaves also have smooth surfaces and the edges are rough but not toothed.


It was once believed that leaves fed to nursing mothers or dairy cattle would increase milk production. In Minnesota, this species is restricted to moist, rich woodlands in north central and northeastern counties. In some references, Gay-wings is listed as the synomym Polygaloides paucifolia.

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More photos

Photos courtesy Peter M. Dziuk, taken in Chippewa National Forest in NE Hubbard County


Have you seen this plant in Minnesota, or have any other comments about it?

Posted by: carole - west shore of Ball Club Lake, Itasca County
on: 2015-06-04 12:16:32

We went to look at a property in Itasca County yesterday. It was a wonderful place for botanists who enjoy a bog walk, but not so great for lake access for fishing. Pretty place!

Posted by: Brian - Near Highway 1, just south of Ely
on: 2015-06-12 12:46:28

One June 8, I observed several blooming gaywings close to the road. They were growing in a stand of red pine.

Posted by: Roberta - Caarlton County
on: 2016-05-30 14:17:56

We have spotted this plant two years in a row. The ones we see have two blossoms each facing a separate direction. They are close to the ground and quite small. The book I use calls them "Bird on a wing".

Posted by: Lynne - Intersection of Hwy 1 and Hwy 2 , St Louis Cnty
on: 2016-06-04 08:20:32

There is an interp site where an old logging camp stood. Along the trail leading to a county latrine you can see these flowers.

Posted by: John L - Ideal, MN
on: 2017-05-17 20:45:16

Wow! I was really stoked to see this beautiful flower for the first time while doing some winter cleanup near a firepit at a camp.

Posted by: Roberta O - Carlton County
on: 2017-05-29 10:44:58

We find these every year . They have always had just two flowers. This year, we found one with three. I would send a picture if I knew where to send it.

Posted by: Julie - Embarrass
on: 2019-06-16 23:01:56

We have an area of 3'x4' in a shady area of the yard with about 50 of these interesting and delicate flowers.

Posted by: Jutta Karin Schultz - Grand Rapids, MN
on: 2021-06-01 18:21:19

Saw hundreds of these on the trails in George Washington State Forest off of River Road.

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