Downy gentian, prairie gentian
Gentianaceae or Gentian
Gentiana: named after Gentius, King of Illyria, who around 500 B.C. found the roots of the herb yellow gentian or bitterwort to have a healing effect on his malaria-stricken troops
Downy Gentian, Prairie Gentian
shaped 1 1/2- 2" long deep blue mostly stalkless flowers, cluster
at the top
of the weakly erect 8"-20" stems. Sometimes short-stalked flowers
will arise from the leaf axils of the upper leaves. This gentian can be
distinguished from the other fall blooming gentians by it color, flaring
petals, and separate white anthers (pollen bearing organ). Occasionally a
flower will be found in a white color with blue highlights.
The opposite leaves are 1-2 inches long
to 1 inch wide and lance-shaped. They have smooth margins and, except for
tiny hairs at the base of the central vein, are smooth and shiny.
The species name describes the minute hairs or fuzz found along the stems often occurring to some extent in lines.
The many tiny seeds are found enclosed in a papery capsule which splits down its side. The Black Blister Beetle (Epicauta pensylvanica) and other insects may chew on the flowers and eat the seeds.
In the roots of almost all gentians is a bitter principle which has long
been used as an ingredient in a tonic. One of the most important uses is the
pleasure the flower gives to those who find and enjoy its beauty at the end of the summer
and before the snow
Other facts: Often this startlingly blue flower can be seen after a killing frost in among the golden colors of fall. It is almost like coming across bird eggs hidden among the grasses of the prairie. It is never abundant, but dots the prairie with small patches of blue. Its range is from the central part of Canada through the central US once south to Louisiana where it is now thought to be extirpated.
This plant grows best in dry limy prairies and seemed to flourish in this very dry year. I found many more than usual in my recent seed collecting foray this fall even though the ground is powdery dry. Because of its relatively short stature, it is thought to survive grazing and to even prosper as a result of the removal of competing vegetation. It is a good indicator species of a native high quality prairie remnant and responds well to occasional burning.
Propagation: The seeds, when one is lucky enough to find them uneaten, can be collected and sown immediately in late fall. Success is usually limited.