Friday, October 9, 2009

To the Fringed Gentian

A lonely, remote stretch of Lake Erie shoreline, completely unsullied by development. I recently had the good fortune to visit this area courtesy of John Pogacnik, and witness an incredible botanical spectacle.

On this day, brutal westerly winds whipped the lake into a chocolate froth, making for some spectacular scenery but difficult photography. This long stretch of shore, in northeast Ohio's Lake County, is covered with rocky cobble and piled with driftwood.

We had come primarily to investigate these steep bluffs, their most clayey soils overlooking Lake Erie.

There! Our targets, and we were not disappointed. All of those flecks of blue are Fringed Gentians, Gentianopsis crinita. This photo is but a tiny snapshot of the bounty that these banks supported. So many were the gentians that an accurate accounting seemed impossible, but I thought that there might be as many as ten thousand. I attempted to more or less thoroughly count the number of plants in one particularly verdant patch, and came up with perhaps 400-500 gentians. And that site was but a fraction of the gentian-filled habitat that is present.

Fringed Gentian is a rare plant in Ohio, although one would never know it from this site. I'm not aware of any other lakefront gentian population, nor any others as large as this one.

We informally dubbed this place "Gentian Bluffs".

Fringed Gentians are photo-sensitive, and thus were not fully opened on this cloudy day. This specimen was one of few that was largely unfurled, offering a taste of the exquisite beauty of the fringed petals. It is as if they've been spun from the finest silk of the richest blue to be found. You can glimpse the prominent blue nectar guides within the corolla; road maps for bees.

One could argue that Fringed Gentians are even more striking when only at half mast. The ragged-tipped petals encircle the corolla, as if twisted around it by a counter-clockwise swirl of elfin fingers. This clump has a distinctly purplish cast.

Others are a gorgeous cerulean blue; one of the showiest colors to be found anywhere in nature. Seeing thousands of these beauties in one locale was hard to fathom; this spot is truly one of Ohio's most amazing floristic displays. As of now, the place is privately held, but if all goes well it'll one day be protected park land. If that comes to pass, and I really hope that it does, many a person will make the early October pilgrimage here to see the gentian magic.

I was startled to find one plant that sported nearly quaternate leaves, or a set of four when there should only be a pair. Some genetic anomaly caused two pairs of leaves to be nearly flush, creating the four-leaved effect.

I hope to return here - many times! - but especially on a sunny day when the flowers are fully expanded. Even as they were, seeing ths many gentians was an amazing experience.

A rather dour-looking William Cullen Bryant, perhaps reflecting upon beautiful wildflowers. He certainly paid attention to botanical treats, and in 1847 penned the poem To the Fringed Gentian. It follows:

To the Fringed Gentian

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

Thou comest not when violets lean
O'er wandering brooks and springs unseen,
Or columbines, in purple dressed,
Nod o'er the ground-bird's hidden nest.

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 his end.

Then doth thy sweet and quiet eye
Look through its fringes to the sky,
Blue—blue—as if that sky let fall
A flower from its cerulean wall.

I would that thus, when I shall see
The hour of death draw near to me,
Hope, blossoming within my heart,
May look to heaven as I depart.


Lisa at Greenbow said...

I can see why Mr Bryant would be moved to poetry after seeing a sight such as you have portrayed. This poem will help me remember when to look for this beauty.

Scott said...

Good stuff, Jim! Bryant's beautiful poem is right on.

Janet Creamer said...

Beautiful, Jim. Excellent captures of the blossoms accompanied with such vivid descriptions. Thanks for sharing the poem, as well.

OpposableChums said...

Lovely pix. Thanks for posting.

Jana said...

Great post. One of your best! I was especially struck by this image:

"It is as if they've been spun from the finest silk of the richest blue to be found."

Jim McCormac said...

Thank you all. I am glad that you enjoyed the gentians, and Bryant's poem. I hope that this site gets protected and becomes accessible to all. Perhaps we can all go there next October to reflect on gentians and have poetry readings :-)


T.R. said...

Beautiful! The beach shots are excellent, despite the weather challenges. Great capture.