The late and lovely gentian
Nature's Notebook - Tim Abbott
September, 17, 2009
Berkshire poet William Cullen Bryant appreciated that, among our blazing autumn glories, there is one brave note of blue. Those lines from his poem “To a Fringed Gentian” remind me in this season of migratory yearnings to let my eye drift downward in places where a final grace note of the fading summer may still abide.
The greater fringed gentian (Gentianopsis crinita) has an affinity for limestone soils and wet meadows. As a biennial wildflower it may bloom one year and be absent from the same site the following. The graceful flowers mature in the fall and will only open in direct sunlight. It is considered rare across much of its range, though not yet in Connecticut. North Canaan’s Greenway passes through several areas that usually reward a careful observer with flowering gentians in early autumn.
Fall blooming plants fill a fascinating evolutionary niche. They eschew competing for pollinators throughout most of the growing season, serving as welcome nectar sources for migrating butterflies and other species when other wildflowers have gone to seed. A number of asters, including some of the showiest, also bloom in late summer and into the fall, as do the various goldenrods.
The gentian, though, standing singly or in isolated patches, is nearer to earth than the swaying asters and nodding goldenrod. Poets note its lonely solitude, a lovely sentinel at the ragged end of summer. Victorians invested great meaning in flowers, with the gentian a symbol of enduring hope in the face of certain mortality.
There are signs on every side that the seasons have cycled another quarter turn. Perhaps I feel them more acutely this year for having been driven inside for most of the summer by cool, wet weather and profusions of biting insects. I am certainly looking forward to the onset of crisp autumn days, with leaves crackling underfoot, but am grateful as well for the counterpoint of fringed gentian, reminding me that not everything in this season is frost-nipped and fading away.
Tim Abbott is program director of Housatonic Valley Association’s Litchfield Hills Greenprint. His blog is at greensleeves.typepad.com.