Thursday, May 29, 2014

A Little Butterfly? A Tiny Plane? No, it's a Polygala paucifolia!

It's our first spring here in this house, and I have been excited to see what comes up in the woodlands in our yard.  So far some beautiful native plants and wildflowers have started making an appearance - Cinnamon Fern, Starflower, False Lily-of-the-valley, and wild Violets.  Then I stumbled (quite literally, oops!) into a patch of these while walking through our woods:

Polygala paucifolia
I have a little colony of Gaywings growing in my woods!  Polygala paucifolia, also known as Gaywings, Fringed Polygala, or Flowering Wintergreen, are short, little plants, easy to miss unless you look down.. (or trip and fall into them..)

Gaywings, spring-blooming wildflower
Gaywings are native to Eastern North America, growing from Canada down to the Georgia mountains.  They spread on creeping, partly underground stems, and are generally found in moist, acidic, wooded sites.  They bloom in May or June, and the winged flowers are often compared to butterflies or even little pink propeller airplanes.

Looks like a field of little tiny airplanes?
Or a bunch of little pink butterflies, alighting on some leaves?
The 'wings' of the flower are actually made up of sepals.  Each flower does have three petals, two of which form a tube around the reproductive structures.  The third petal is fringed, looking like a propeller for the airplane-shaped flower.  When a bee or other pollinator lands on this third petal, the weight opens up the tube, allowing access to the pollen (or cockpit, if we're still going with the airplane motif?).

ready for takeoff...
The resulting seeds are actually planted by ants.  The seeds have little attachments on them called elaiosomes, that are very rich in nutrients.  Ants like to feed these elaiosomes to their young, and in doing so they end up carrying the seeds off and 'planting' them in their ant nests.

And just in case the insects fail to pollinate the flowers and make any seeds, each plant also has a couple of tiny, inconspicuous flowers that are underground and self-fertilized.


Polygala paucifolia is in the Milkwort family, and people once believed that if they fed the leaves of this plant to nursing mothers or dairy cattle, they would produce more milk (in Latin, 'poly' means 'many or much' and 'gala' means 'milk').

yum, yum..
According to online reports, Gaywings are a little hard to get established, but when they are happy, they will make a nice colony.  I think they would make a beautiful clump of ground cover for a woodland garden, as the leaves stay mostly evergreen.


Polygala paucifolia is honestly quite hard to find if you are hoping to get some for your garden.  I can't find many reports of people propagating these from seeds, or really, too many reports of propagating these at all.  The main suggestions seem to be propagation from stem cuttings or by carefully dividing the rootstock.  I only found one online source for them: Enchanter's Garden Native Plant Nursery in Hinton, WV (maybe someone else knows of other sources?)  You could also try a local wildflower nursery.


For now, I am enjoying them where they are in the woods!

p.s. For a look at other wildflowers that are blooming this May, visit this month's Wildflower Wednesday at Clay and Limestone's blog!

21 comments:

  1. Mine have gone past, but it's great to see yours. I'm so happy to see that others consider this flower a rare gem.

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    1. I hadn't really seen it before, so I was very happy to stumble upon some in my yard! Now that I have some woods, I have quite a few more flowering native woodland plants than in my last yard.

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  2. our polygalas are shrubs and trees. Interesting to see a groundcover cousin.

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    1. That is interesting that yours are shrubs and trees! We have several other polygalas, but they are perennials flowering plants.

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  3. What a nice find! It looks so special and different from al other plants. I have never seen it before.

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    1. They look like little jewels on the woodland floor, their color is so rich. So pretty!

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  4. What a beautiful find to stumble upon – you are lucky having them so close to you.
    I have never heard of these before so thank you for introducing them to me.

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    1. I love hearing about new plants - and stumbling upon new ones as well!

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  5. Aren't they lovely, Indie?! I have never seen nor heard of them. They are so cute! And you are so lucky to have a woodland area near you. Just watch your step!

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    1. I'm constantly finding new plants in my woods. So much fun! I'm learning a lot!

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  6. How cute!! Congratulations on having them in your yard :-)

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    1. Thank you! They are so cute! :)

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  7. Oh Indie I love the little wildflowers that show up in spring....how wonderful to have these growing on your property...such a rare beauty.

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    1. There are so many little spring bloomers, and each have their charm!

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  8. would love to have you link your garden posts to Fishtail Cottage's garden party!!! (Thursdays ~ but I keep the party open thru the weekends) hope to see you! xoxo, tracie

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  9. Love the color. And the form! How exciting to discover new plants in your beautiful garden! And such a lovely one!

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    1. I just found a few more new flowering plants today in my woods - the woods are like a treasure trove!

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  10. I love the name of these wildflowers! I'd never heard of them before, but what pretty little blooms. I can imagine they would make a great groundcover.

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    1. I do wonder how quickly/slowly they spread. If they spread well, they would look so pretty as a flowering ground cover.

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  11. How sweet are these little pink planes! Wouldn't the sky look fabulous if real planes looked like this?

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