This section is from the book "Nature's Garden", by Neltje Blanchan. Also available from Amazon: Nature's Garden; An Aid To Knowledge Of Our Wild Flowers And Their Insect Visitors.
Flowers - Deep, bright blue, rarely white, several or many, about 2 in. high, stiffly erect, and solitary at ends of very long footstalk. Calyx of 4 unequal, acutely pointed lobes. Corolla funnel form, its four lobes spreading, rounded, fringed around ends, but scarcely on sides. Four stamens inserted on corolla tube; 1 pistil with 2 stigmas. Stem: 1 to 3 ft. high, usually branched, leafy. Leaves: Opposite, upper ones acute at tip, broadening to heart-shaped base, seated on stem. Fruit: A spindle-shaped, 2-valved capsule, containing numerous scaly, hairy seeds.
Flowering Season - September - November.
Distribution - Quebec, southward to Georgia, and westward beyond the Mississippi.
Fringed Gentian. (Gentiana crinita.)
Closed Or Blind Gentian. (Gentiana Andrewsii.)
"Thou waitest late, and com'st alone When woods are bare and birds have 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."
When we come upon a bed of gentians on some sparkling October day, we can but repeat Bryant's thoughts and express them prosaically who attempt description. In dark weather this sunshine lover remains shut, to protect its nectar and pollen from possible showers. An elusive plant is this gentian, which by no means always reappears in the same places year after year, for it is an annual whose seeds alone perpetuate it. Seating themselves on the winds when autumn gales shake them from out the home wall, these little hairy scales ride afar, and those that are so fortunate as to strike into soft, moist soil at the end of the journey, germinate. Because this flower is so rarely beautiful that few can resist the temptation of picking it, it is becoming sadly rare near large settlements.
The special importance of producing a quantity of fertile seed has led the gentians to adopt proterandry - one of the commonest, because most successful, methods of insuring it. The anthers, coming to maturity early, shed their pollen on the bumblebees that have been first attracted by their favorite color and the enticing fringes before they crawl half way down the tube where they can reach the nectar secreted in the walls. After the pollen has been carried from the early flowers, and the stamens begin to wither, up rises the pistil to be fertilized with pollen brought from a newly opened blossom by the bee or butterfly. The late development of the pistil accounts for the error often stated, that some gentians have none. No doubt the fringe, which most scientists regard simply as an additional attraction for winged insects, serves a double purpose in entangling the feet of ants and other crawlers that would climb over the edge to pilfer sweets clearly intended for the bumblebee alone.
Fifteen species of gentian have been gathered during a half-hour walk in Switzerland,where the pastures are spread with sheets of blue. Indeed, one can little realize the beauty of these heavenly flowers who has not seen them among the Alps.
The Five-flowered or Stiff Gentian, or Ague-weed (Gentiana quinquefolia) - G. quinqueflora of Grav - has its five-parted, small, picotee-edged blue flowers arranged in clusters, not exceeding seven, at the ends of the branches or seated in the leaf-axils. The slender, branching, ridged stem may rise only two inches in dry soil; or perhaps two feet in rich, moist, rocky ground, where it grows to perfection, especially in mountainous regions. From Canada to Florida and westward to Missouri is its range, and beginning to bloom in August southward, it may not be found until September in the Catskills, and in October it is still in its glory in Ontario. The colorless, bitter juice of many of the gentian tribe has long been valued as a tonic in medicine. Evidently the butterflies that pilfer this "ague-weed," and the bees that are its legitimate feasters, find something more delectable in its blue walls.
A deep, intense blue is the Closed, Blind, or Bottle Gentian (G. Andrewsii), more truly the color of the "male bluebird's back," to which Thoreau likened the paler fringed gentian. Rarely some degenerate plant bears white flowers. As it is a perennial, we are likely to find it in its old haunts year after year; nevertheless its winged seeds sail far abroad to seek pastures new. This gentian also shows a preference for moist soil. Gray thought that it expanded slightly, and for a short time only in sunshine, but added that, although it is proterandrous, i.e. it matures and sheds its pollen before its stigma is susceptible to any, he believed it finally fertilized itself by the lobes of the stigma curling backward until they touched the anthers. But Gray was doubtless mistaken. Several authorities have recently proved that the flower is adapted to bumblebees. It offers them the last feast of the season, for although it comes into bloom in August southward, farther northward - and it extends from Quebec to the Northwest Territory - it lasts through October.
Now, how can a bumblebee enter this inhospitable-looking flower? If he did but know it, it keeps closed for his special benefit, having no fringes or hairs to entangle the feet of crawling pilferers, and no better way of protecting its nectar from rain and marauding butterflies that are not adapted to its needs. But he is a powerful fellow. Watch him alight on a cluster of blossoms, select the younger, nectar-bearing ones, that are distinctly marked white against a light-blue background at the mouth of the corolla for his special guidance. Old flowers from which the nectar has been removed turn deep reddish purple, and the white pathfinders become indistinct. With some difficulty, it is true, the bumblebee (B. Americanorum) thrusts his tongue through the valve of the chosen flower where the five plaited lobes overlap one another; then he pushes with all his might until his head having passed the entrance most of his body follows, leaving only his hind legs and the tip of his abdomen sticking out as he makes the circuit. He has much sense as well as muscle, and does not risk imprisonment in what must prove a tomb by a total and unnecessary disappearance within the bottle. Presently he backs out, brushes the pollen from his head and thorax into his baskets, and is off to fertilize an older, stigmatic flower with the few grains of quickening dust that must remain on his velvety head.