Sunday, April 28, 2013

The Greater Glory of the Fringed Gentian

Like the lady’s slipper about which I wrote earlier, the greater fringed gentian (Gentianopsis crinita) is one of those wildflowers which should, theoretically, grow in my region. I say "should" because I’ve never seen one! With lovely blue to blue-violet petals edged with long fringes, this wildling frequently succumbs to people’s urge to pick it, and has become endangered in many states.

Its range covers the northeast and northern midwest in the U. S., as well as eastern Canada, though it can grow as far south as the mountains of Georgia. Part of the plant's problem is its finicky nature. It requires neutral, magnesium-rich, almost constantly damp soil in full sun, and doesn't tolerate competition. Since it refuses to grow where large shrubs or trees block its sunlight, it is mostly found in wet meadows and fens or along open riverbanks.

The plant generally stands from one to three feet tall, with a single main stem from which other stems branch, and petals about 2 inches long. Those petals don't condescend to unfurl on cloudy days, however. So, if you are looking for open flowers, make haste while the sun shines!     

Because it blooms late, from September through November, the fringed gentian will often succumb to hard freezes before it can set seed. That ability to flower after other plants have tired and retired makes it even more treasured, however-especially by poets.

As Emily Dickinson wrote of the plant in "Fringed Gentian," "The frosts were her condition;/ The Tyrian would not come/ Until the North evoked it." William Cullen Bryant noted in "To the Fringed Gentian," ‘Thou waitest late, and com'st alone,/ When woods are bare and birds are flown,/ And frosts and shortening days portend/ The aged year is near an end."

Like every difficult diva, the fringed gentian has to have the last word! True to its nature, Gentianopsis can also be tricky to germinate. I found an old article--in a 1905 issue ofThe Gardener Magazine--by a Thomas Murray who had managed it. According to him, you must sow the seeds on the surface of chopped sphagnum moss, keeping that moss constantly damp by watering it only from the bottom. 

A more modern grower, Gene Mirro of NARGS, recommends a mix of sphagnum moss and perlite with lime and bone meal added. He also keeps his pots inside plastic bags under fluorescent grow lights in a cool basement until the seeds germinate. You can find links to these gentlemen's articles below. 

Because it is a biennial, the fringed gentian will remain a very short plant its first year and won't flower until its second. If you wish to try it outdoors, find it a sunny area with light, limey soil. Mulch that soil to ensure it stays damp, and keep your fingers crossed! Mirro thinks it easier to grow this wildflower in pots than in the ground.

For those of you who don't live on the plant's home turf, there are other similar species, including the lesser fringed gentian (Gentiana virgata or procera) in the midwest and the meadow or western fringed gentian (Gentiana thermalis) in the Rocky Mountain area.

I've read about a gentian fen in a nature conservancy area an hour or so south of me. Someday, I may just succumb to the temptation to check it out. Of course, I'll have to think up some other good excuse for being there first. It seems impractical to drive that far just to see a flower which would probably scorn to perform that day anyway!

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