Tom's Blog

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

The gentians: fringed and otherwise

This is the time of year for gentians. As poet Emily Dickinson so aptly put it, gentians come with the frosts, although with global warming since Dickinson’s time, it has not frosted yet. Cream gentian (Gentiana alba) comes a little earlier, but right about now we have the following:

·         Bottle gentian: Gentiana andrewsii; perennial; seeds flattened and winged
·         Stiff gentian: Gentianella quinquefolia; winter annual or biennial; seeds smooth and round
·         Prairie gentian: Gentiana puberulenta; perennial; seeds flattened and winged
·         Fringed gentian: Gentianopsis crinita; biennial; seeds oblong-angular, covered with papillae

The famous and even rarer Great Plains fringed gentian (Gentianopsis procera; Special Concern) is the species found at the Ridges Sanctuary and other locations along the Door County beaches.

According to Cochrane and Iltis, gentians are “beloved by botanists” and are “A large, cosmopolitan family, mostly in cool, moist, habitats. Our gentians are all essentially prairie or fen species that, becoming rarer year by year, should never be picked or transplanted except as a last resort in the face of impending destruction.”

Right now, at PVC we have in flower all four gentian species from the above bullets: stiff gentian (widespread); bottle gentian (well established in the Crane and Valley Prairies); prairie gentian (in the Ridge Prairie), and fringed gentian (the marsh/fen edge near the barn). Stiff gentian was native to PVC but the three others were planted from local genotype seed.

It is the fringed gentian that interests me here. Over the last 3-4 years we have been able to get this handsome species well established in the wet-mesic prairie near the barn. Ten years ago this wetland was a solid monoculture of Carex trichocarpa, but then I discovered that lousewort (Pedicularis lanceolata), a hemiparasite, could infect the sedge and keep it in check. We started throwing out lousewort seeds. Gradually, as the sedge disappeared,numerous other wetland species became established.

Some years ago, Kathie planted bottle and fringe gentian seeds in this area. (The seed came from another wet-mesic site in Dane County.)

 Since fringed gentian is a biennial, continued presence at a site depends on good seed production and subsequent germination and growth. The area we chose must be favorable because this year we have dozens of flowering patches.

Fringed gentian (by Emily Dickinson)
God made a little gentian;
It tried to be a rose
And failed, and all the summer laughed.
But just before the snows
There came a purple creature
That ravished all the hill;
And summer hid her forehead,
And mockery was still.
The frosts were her condition;
The Tyrian would not come
Until the North evoked it.
"Creator! shall I bloom?"

Notes: Roses bloom in summer but gentians bloom at the end of summer, just before or after the first frosts
Tyrian is a type of “purple”, Royal purple. The color would not appear until frost had arrived.

Poet William Cullen Bryant has a poem called “To the fringed gentian”(first stanza below)

Thou blossom bright with autumn dew,
And coloured with the heaven’s blue,
That openest when the quiet light
Succeeds the keen and frosty night.

The internet is full of fringed gentian lore. Indeed, there is a Gentian Research Network at Rutgers University.

Fringed gentian habitat at PVC. Visible from the lane next to the Valley Prairie.
This time of year, most of the other wet-mesic species are finished blooming.


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