This section is from the book "The Native Flowers And Ferns Of The United States ", by Thomas Meehan. Also available from Amazon: The Native Flowers and Ferns of the United States in Their Botanical, Horticultural, And Popular Aspects.
Stems stout, a foot or two high, smooth: leaves from ovate to broadly lanceolate, gradually acuminate, contracted at the base, two to four inches long: calyx-lobes lanceolate to ovate, usually spreading or recurved, shorter than the tube: corolla as in Gentiana Saponaria, but more oblong, and the lobes obliterated or obsolete, the truncate and usually closed border mainly consisting of the prominent fimbriate-den-tate intervening appendages: seeds with a conspicuous wing, oblong in outline. (Gray's Synoptical Flora of North America. See also Gray's Flora of the Northern United States, Chapman's Flora of the Southern United States, and Wood's Class ■ Book of Botany.)
THERE are but few persons who have been observers of flowers in the temperate regions of the world who do not know the Gentian, for most of the family have very attractive characters which thrust themselves on our attention, whether we will or no. Modern botanists enumerate about one hundred and fifty species; but the limits of the genus are not capable of a very exact definition, and hence some botanists might give even a larger list than this. They are chiefly Alpine, and very few are found in low altitudes, but of these our present subject is one. According to Dr. Gray, from whom we have the botanical description at the head of our chapter, it is found "in moist ground, New England and Canada to Saskatchewan, and south to the upper part of Georgia." It is generally known as the "closed Gentian," because, though most of the species open under sunlight, and close at certain times, this one rarely does. The rapid manner in which some species open and shut is very interesting. The writer has seen species on Alpine heights, which were open under a warm sun, close in a few minutes when visited by a sudden snow-storm; and again open as rapidly when the sun came out and turned to water the fallen snow. It is, indeed, remarkable that this one species should resist this solar influence. Of course, its time of blooming is not favorable to its being caught in a snow-storm in spring. As Bryant has said of another species of Gentian:
" Thou comest not when violets lean O'er wandering brooks and springs unseen, Or columbines, in purple drest, Nod o'er the ground-birds' hidden nest."
But it appears in September, when other flowers are bethinking of going to their wintry rest. In Pennsylvania, from whence the specimen illustrated was taken, it is one of the latest fall-flowers that are found in open grassy places. It seldom grows here in any one spot in quantity sufficient to give a marked character to the autumnal scenery, and yet it is sufficiently abundant to prevent its being overlooked wherever it exists at all. Its beauty has attracted the attention of florists; and it is often met with under culture, where it seems to thrive very well without any special care, and to prefer much drier and more open places than those in which it is naturally found. In England it seems to be as well appreciated as here. Mr. Robinson, in his work on "Alpine Flowers," tells us it is regarded as more beautiful than Gentiana Saponaria, and more worthy of culture.
Botanically, it was confused with G. Saponaria, or allied species, by the earlier botanists. Rafinesque, in his "Medical Flora," published in 1818, seems to have been the first to note its true distinction, and named it Gentiana clausa - literally, the "closed Gentian;" and it would seem, under the law of priority, that this should be its prevailing name. But Professor Gray, and American botanists generally, follow Grisebach, who, in 1843, wrote a monograph of the order, in which he gave it the name of Gentiana Andrewsii, in honor of Henry Andrews, who edited the "Botanical Repository," an illustrated work, published in London at the incoming of the present century, and who figured this plant, supposing it to be a species already named. It differs from Gentiana Saponaria, as pointed out by Dr. Hooker, in not having the linear or spatulate calyx-lobes of that species, which in that one equal or exceed the tube. G. Saponaria has also a light blue corolla with distinct lobes and cleft appendages, and acute narrowly winged seeds. The generic name, Gentian, is a very old one, occurring in the writings of Pliny, the ancient Roman writer, and is supposed to have been derived from Gentius, a King of Illyria, who discovered tonic virtues in a species now believed to be Gentiana lutea, of the old world, and by the use of which he arrested malarial fever which had prevailed in his army. Many of these ancient remedies have not sustained their reputations in these later times, but Gentian is still very popular in modern pharmacy. Its bitter principle has much relation to hops; and it was used as hops before the latter came into such general use. It is still a popular ingredient in many patent medicines, especially such as are known as "Stomachics" and "Bitters."
Besides the interest connected with the historical family relations, and its own merits as a beautiful wild Mower, and also one well adapted to garden culture, the closed Gentian contributes its share to philosophical botany and furnishes some facts which are valued in modern biological speculations. As already noted, most Gentians open under sunlight, while this remains closed at nearly all times; and what particular purpose such behavior serves in the economy of the plant-life is the problem. It is believed that plants are generally benefited by an occasional cross through the pollen of some other flower; but, of course, if this never opens, it must be a self-fertilizer, and thus be deprived of the benefits of any of this intermixture with other individuals. In the "American Naturalist," for 1874, Professor Gray notes that in the closed blossoms the flowers are all erect, with the two stigmas considerably above the five anthers. He has seen bum-ble-bees force their way into the corollas, and he believes that the flowers can only be fertilized by insect agency. In the volume for 1875, Mr. M. \V. Vansenburg shows that the stigmas are at first below the mature polleniferous anthers, and that the pistil, as it grows, pushes the stigmata through the mass, and are thus self-fertilized and not by insect aid. In the "Bulletin of the Tor-rey Botanical Club," for 1877, Dr. Kunze confirms Mr. Vansen-burg's observations about the growth of the pistil, and he concludes that the flowers are truly cleistogene and derive no aid from insects. At p. 179, following in the same volume, Professor Gray says at Cambridge the corolla opens like other Gentians;" and because of the conspicuous and high-colored flowers, and other reasons, concludes that they must be designed for cross-fertilization. In a succeeding volume, another observer offers some reasons for concluding that the plant may behave differently in different localities; but this summary of what leading botanists believe shows how much there is yet to be positively ascertained in relation to this beautiful wild flower.
The colors vary with the situation in which the plants grow. In partial shade, under which they are sometimes found, the flowers have much more blue in them than when in more exposed places. The specimen we have chosen for illustration was growing in an unusually open place. In such cases there is a brownish tendency with the purple.