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Fringed Gentians

 
As most plants decline, fringed gentians put on a show

THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH
October 19, 2014

NATURE
Jim McCormac

Thou blossom bright with autumn dew,
And colored with the heaven’s own blue,
That openest when the quiet light
Succeeds the keen and frosty night.
 
— excerpted from To the Fringed Gentian by William Cullen Bryant

Fall’s frosty days are here, and colder weather and shorter days have muted autumn’s spectacular wildflowers.

Some flowers persist in a losing battle with Old Man Winter. The riotous bouquet of asters, colored in blue, white and purple, struggle mightily to hold on. Their rich hues are punctuated by lemony goldenrod flowers, another of winter’s botanical deniers.

None of fall’s holdouts compare, however, to the king of autumn flowers: the fringed gentian.

On Oct. 5, a date that seems too late for wildflower hunting, I visited a rich fen in Ross County. After a short trek through pasture and scruffy woods, we burst into a wet meadow browned with sedges. Breezy gusts showered leaves from the surrounding trees, and nippy air called for warm jackets.

In spite of the late date, we were greeted by one of Ohio’s most spectacular wildflower displays. Sprinkled among the senescent grasses and sedges were thousands of fringed gentians, just hitting their stride. Like cobalt bursts of botanical fireworks, their gorgeous blue flowers glittered throughout the meadow.

A fringed gentian blossom almost defies adequate description. It’s as if the petals have been spun from silk dyed the richest royal blue. The mythical seamstress craftily allowed the petals’ edges to tatter and fray, creating a look of artful sloppy elegance.

Gentians are named for King Gentius, a ruler of ancient Illyria (which included Albania, Greece and Macedonia). According to the Roman naturalist Pliny, Gentius first discovered the purported medicinal properties of this family.

The gentians constitute a big family, with some 1,600 species worldwide; Ohio is home to only 14 of them. Among their rank, the fringed gentians rule.

The species written about here is the western fringed gentian (Gentianopsis virgata). The eastern fringed gentian is similar; in fact, some botanists haggle about the plants’ uniqueness. Both are beautiful.
Fringed gentian is rare in Ohio. It was once found in 26 counties; today, the plants occur in perhaps half of them.

This species is picky about its haunts, growing only in boggy peatlands. A 1992 study published in The Ohio Journal of Science showed that 98 percent of Ohio’s peatlands have been destroyed since European settlement. Development of land for agricultural purposes was the major culprit.

The fringed gentian is a stunning icon of habitats that we have largely erased. Many of its associates have also become rare. The flowers of blue silk should serve as a reminder to protect what we still have.

Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a biweekly column for The Dispatch. He also writes about nature at www.jimmccormac.blogspot.com.

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