Gentian Time

August 26, 27 and 28, 2022

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

Come fall, Minnesota’s prairies turn yellow with goldenrods, sneezeweed, sunflowers. Deeper down in the grass, blue blossoms open—Minnesota has seven different species of blue gentians.  Over the years we’d seen all but one of them, pleated gentian, a state special concern flower, and because it’s gentian time we headed to northwestern Minnesota where pleated gentian’s been known to grow in saline prairie.  As we drove, we realized our route would take us close to Badoura Jack Pine Woodland, a Scientific and Natural Area (SNA) that we’d visited last summer when drought parched the state, so we veered from our planned route to visit it again.  

Even with the ground crunching underfoot last year, we’d been intrigued by the open woodland under the tall jack pine trees, which only regenerate after fire releases their seeds.  Under those trees we’d been surprised and delighted to find tessellated rattlesnake plantain blooming.

Now as we stepped into the woodland, the mossy ground felt soft, and green surrounded us.  This time, too, we found several tessellated rattlesnake plantain plants, their spires gone to seed and their distinctive leaves withered and brown. Lowbush blueberries, snowberries, and bearberries ripened, making a feast for any passing bear (luckily, none passed us, although last week we did see a bear cross the road as we drove through a wildlife management area).  We lingered in the Jack Pine woodland, a habitat critically imperiled in Minnesota and rare worldwide. But we had a pleated gentian to find, and so eventually we continued on.

Once we came to the small prairie where we’d heard pleated gentian grew, it didn’t take long to find six of the plants nestled in the grass, delicate and small but blooming beautifully. We spent the rest of the afternoon scouring nearby prairies that had saline habitat, but we had no luck finding any more pleated gentians. 

One last stop before finding a place for the night was a prairie where we’d once seen what we thought was lesser fringed gentian, and we couldn’t resist a stop to see if the flowers were still there—and if they were, indeed, the lesser fringed gentian.  (When we’d worked on our first wildflower book we had initially identified a greated fringed gentian as a lesser one–the two species look similar, grow in the same habitats, and have an overlapping range of height.) Roscoe Prairie SNA lists lesser fringed gentian, so we planned to stop there on our way home the next day to try to figure the fringed gentians out.

Next morning was a pure prairie morning. Rain in the night had left the air sweet and fresh, and Ottertail Prairie SNA, where we stopped for one more pleated gentian search, blazed with sunflowers and the vivid blue of countless bottle gentians. Monarchs filled the air, flying from northern blazing star to northern blazing star.  We didn’t find any pleated gentians, but deep in the prairie we came across a willow tree where hundreds and hundreds of monarchs clung fluttering to the leaves.  Later we learned that we were looking at a roost, something that monarchs, who migrate singly, will sometimes form at night along their journey. All wildflower searching paused as we stood in wonder watching monarchs come and go.

Roscoe Prairie SNA did indeed reveal many fringed gentians along a ditch.  Based on our research of the difference in plant height, length of the fringe on flower petals, and width of leaves (everything is a little lesser on lesser fringed gentians) we determined that these were indeed lesser fringed gentians.  And beautiful.

We still weren’t done with gentians, though.  More research revealed that cream gentian, which we’d only ever seen growing in a park, was blooming wild in a ditch down along highway 56 in southern Minnesota, so after a night in our own beds we headed out again.  The rain poured down mile after mile after mile, and we fretted that the flowers might not even be open, since at least some gentians open in the sun and close at night or when the sky clouds over.  Luckily, cream gentian blossoms are almost as closed as bottle gentians, so they don’t have much opening to do.  Luckier still, the rain stopped just as we spotted the cream gentians alongside the road, far too many to count (I tried), and gloriously cream-colored in the wet morning.

Pleated gentians, bottle gentians, lesser fringed gentians, and cream gentians.  Not to mention a tree full of butterflies. 

A pretty-much perfect weekend of wildflower chasing.

Author: kellypovo

Kelly Povo, a professional photographer for over thirty years, has exhibited in galleries and art shows across the country. Her cards, gift books, and calendars have been sold internationally. She and Phyllis Root have collaborated on several books. This is her first book on Minnesota's Native Wildflowers.

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