January 21, 2023
Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo
On a cold and snowy winter day, when native wildflowers have gone to sleep or to seed, we have gentians on our minds, those late summer bloomers with a color so lovely and deep it has its own name: gentian blue. (There’s also a gentian blue sports car color, but, trust us, the flower came first.)
Not all gentians that go by the common name “gentian” are blue. One gentian flower is creamy yellow, one is green, and two of the flowers with the common name gentian (early and late horse gentian, which we have yet to see blooming) are not only not blue but actually belong to a different botanical family.
The first four gentians we saw when we began chasing wildflowers were definitely blue—bottle, stiff, downy, and greater fringed gentian. They were also relatively easy to find, although we did mistake a greater fringed gentian for a lesser one, since both are small with similar flowers. But lesser fringed gentian, when we finally identified it at Roscoe Scientific and Natural Area (SNA), turned out to be shorter and have slightly smaller leaves and shorter fringe on its petals. (Hint: it also helped that lesser fringed gentian was the only one listed at that SNA.)
Bottle gentian is Minnesota’s most common gentian, the brilliant blue of the closed blossoms in the grasses of late summer like overlooked Easter eggs. I’d read that bumblebees were the only pollinators big enough to fight their way into bottle gentians and that they often left their rear legs and bumblebee bottom sticking out so that they didn’t get trapped inside the tightly closed petals. Once, in Iron Horse Prairie SNA, I actually saw a bumblebee bottom protruding from a bottle gentian. The bumblebee backed out and flew on before we could snap a photo, but I know what I saw, and it made me laugh out loud. You don’t even have to go to the prairie (although we love and highly recommend a prairie for so many reasons) to watch a bumblebee fight its way in and back out of bottle gentian flowers. You can watch one HERE.
Stiff gentian and greater fringed gentian grow at Iron Horse Prairie SNA, too, and we found downy gentian’s graceful blossoms at Oronoco Prairie SNA. It was years more before we tracked down the other blue members of the family: lesser fringed gentian in a ditch, Great Lakes gentian in a bog, and pleated gentian in a saline prairie. We spotted American spurred gentian with its fat green pointy flowers in several forests, saw an abundance of yellow gentian along highway 56 in Mower County, and identified late horse gentian’s bright orange fruits at Oronoco Prairie SNA one September afternoon. (Hint: the plant looks nothing like the other gentians to our untrained eye, and we would have passed it by if we hadn’t spotted the fruits). Now that we’ve seen late horse gentian’s vivid contribution to the fall prairie, we’re determined to revisit late horse gentian in bloom and also track down its near relative, early horse gentian.
As for the native blue gentians (and the one creamy yellow gentian), we are always grateful to see their deep and lovely flowers gracing Minnesota’s wilder places. Who needs a sports car painted gentian blue when we can find true gentian blue for free? See more information about Minnesota’s gentians HERE.