The Friends of the Wild Flower Garden

Gentian in the Garden

Then and Now
in The Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden and Bird Sanctuary

Note: You can find more photos and information on some of the plants mentioned here by accessing the link to the individual plant pages or by going to the "Photos" menu. Modern scientific names have been used replacing some older names used in the early 20th century.

Twelve species of the Gentianaceae Family are listed on the 2019 Minnesota DNR plant census. Of those the Garden Curators (1) planted nine in the Wildflower Garden plus two non-native species. Today only three remain. We begin with those three.

The Surviving Gentians

bottle gentian
Bottle (Closed) gentian (Gentiana andrewsii) Photo G D Bebeau

The Gentians begin to flower by mid-summer in the Upland Prairie Garden. There are three easy-to-find species and one recluse. First are the Blue Bottle gentians, (Gentiana clausa and G. andrewsii), often called closed  gentians. The flowers have a 1-1/4 to 1-3/4 inch long tube shaped corolla of 5 blue lobes forming petals that are fused together by a connecting fringe, creating folds between the outside of the petals. (White albinos are known to occur). In the species G. clausa the sepal lobes are larger and the petals remain closed at the tip with those fringes hidden by the closed tip. In the species G. andrewsii, (predominant in the Garden) the fringes of the flower lobes are longer than the petals and thus are visible at the tip of the closed flower. Flower color varies by age of the blooms and amount of sun, shading to a bronze as they age. Some are a deep cobalt and some appear to be iridescent. Only large bees such as the bumblebee can force open the flower tip for pollination.

Both Eloise Butler and Martha Crone planted G. andrewsii numerous times. Eloise planted them in 1908 with plants from Mound, MN; in 1909 from plants obtained in Mahtomedi, MN; and more plants in 1910, '13, '14, '16, 17, '18, '19, and in nine years thereafter from various places. Martha Crone planted the same species in 1933, '36, '39, '44, '46, '47, '48, '50, '51, '53, and '55 as did Cary George in 1998. G. andrewsii is native in most counties in Minnesota.

Martha Crone listed only G. clausa on her 1951 census. It is uncertain when G. clausa was first planted, as it is not native to the state, but rather native to the east coast area. Perhaps she lumped both species together.

Third is the Plain Gentian - aka yellowish or cream gentians (Gentiana alba -old Gentiana flavida); these are much more abundant than the blue bottle gentians. Plain Gentian along with Bottle Gentians prefer sunny, wet meadows or stream banks.

The Plain Gentian is indigenous to the Wirth Park area. Eloise Butler noted finding her first specimen in the Garden on Sept. 11, 1912 near the area she called "Old Andrew's Mount". She planted G. flavida on Aug. 25, 1914 - plants obtained in Eden Prairie, MN, on Aug. 31 1914 with plants from along Western Ave (now named Glenwood Avenue, in Golden Valley MN), on 10 Sept. 1917 with plants from Fairview and in 1918 from Glenwood Park, more in 1923. Martha Crone planted it in 1945, '46, '48, '49, '51, '53 and it was also listed on her 1951 inventory of plants in the Garden at that time. This plant is native to Minnesota in a group of counties in the SE quarter of the state.

Next is one species harder to find. Gardener Cary George wrote in 2000 (2) that one specimen of Downy Gentian (Gentiana puberulenta) persisted in the Garden until its disappearance in 1985 and he knew of no commercial source to replace it. However in the Fall of 2004 the Garden Naturalists reported it had been seen in bloom once again in the Prairie Garden (3); it was also listed on the 2009 Garden Census. Today Prairie Moon Nursery in Winona MN usually has seed. The Downy is a true prairie plant and the photo shown here was taken at Jeffers Petroglyph National Monument in Southwestern Minnesota.

The history of planting for this species is also extensive. Miss Butler began in 1912 and planted more in nine additional years. Although it is native to Minnesota her first plants came from Ipswich MA. Martha Crone first planted it in 1936 and in 11 later years, the last in 1956.

Plain (Cream, Pale, Yellow) gentian (Gentiana alba -old Gentiana flavida) Photo G D Bebeau
Downy Gentian
Downy gentian (Gentiana puberulenta) Photo: G. D. Bebeau

The Fringed Gentians

No we consider two species no longer extant, but dearly loved by the Curators and The Friends. The Fringed Gentian, Gentianopsis crinita, and the Lesser Fringed Gentian, Gentianopsis virgata. Their history of planting by the Curators is lengthy and frustrating.

Eloise Butler wrote

“After linnaea, the chief pride of the garden, are the Fringed Gentians, the larger and the smaller, which grow luxuriantly, tinting the meadows blue in late August late into September. (4)

Below: Fringed Gentians (Gentianopsis crinita - former Gentiana crinita). Photo Mark Mittelstadt, Wisconsin Flora.

She had earlier written:

September brings us what is pronounced the loveliest blue flower of the world - the Fringed Gentian. The indescribable color of rich, deep blue, the exquisite finish of the petals, the large number of flowers borne on a single individual, together with the late time of blooming, make this species of extraordinary value. The poet Bryant has given it immortal fame. Everyone knows his beautiful poem, “To the Fringed Gentian.” It is somewhat captious to criticize this venerated master of literature and keen observer and lover of nature. Perhaps the case was different in Bryant’s Berkshire home but, with us, this “blossom bright with autumn dew, and colored with the heaven’s own blue,” does not “come alone, when woods are bare and birds are flown.” Late August finds it here with a large company of other flowers, and the trees are still in full leafage. The color of the flower, also, is not “sky blue.” But who can say what sort of blue may not be found in the sky? Among the many tints gentian-blue will sometimes be seen there.

Fringed Gentian
Fringed Gentian (Gentianopsis crinita Photographed in the Garden on Sept. 24, 1950 by Martha Crone. Friends photo.

A smaller fringed gentian with slight stem, linear leaves and fewer and paler colored blossoms, grows with the showier species. These flowers are annuals. Florists desirous to cultivate them were long baffled in their attempts. It was at length discovered that the seeds were biennial, that is, that they do not germinate until two years old. We must always leave some of the flowers to go to seed, however much their beauty tempts us, in order that the plant may not be exterminated. (5)

The Lesser Fringed Gentian, Gentianopsis virgata was planted numerous times under two older obsolete names - Gentiana detonsa and Gentiana procera. Eloise first logged it in 1915 and more in years 1918, '20, '22, '23, '24 and '25. Martha Crone recorded planting it in 1934 and '38.

Eloise planted G. crinita in 1908, ’25, ’28, and ’31. Martha Crone tried many times - 1934, ’36, ’38, ’44, ’45, ’46, ’47, ’48, ’51, ’52, ’55, ’58, usually by planting seeds. They apparently died out frequently. Cary George had this to say in 2000:

A bit of good fortune came our way this year when Lisa Locken [Former editor of The Fringed Gentian™] donated eight Fringed Gentians she rescued from a mowed area near Detroit Lakes. As members are well aware this “dainty” gentian is this publication’s namesake. Records also show many failed attempts by Martha Crone and Ken Avery to re-establish this biennial. So let’s keep our fingers crossed and with some luck and expertise, perhaps, the Fringed Gentian will flourish again in the Garden.” (2)

It was not to be. The reference to our newsletter points out that the Fringed Gentian is the logo of the publication. Moana Beim wrote:

When Martha Crone began to publish a paper for the group Mr. Odell suggested its present name “The Fringed Gentian.” This was an almost extinct wildflower of Minnesota and he hoped this fact would serve as an inspiration and a reminder to workers who followed. (6)

As a final tribute to the beauty of the Fringed Gentian we will let Aldo Leopold have the last word:

“The tamaracks grow not only in the swamp, but at the foot of the bordering upland, where springs break forth. Each spring has become choked with moss, which forms a boggy terrace. I call these terraces the hanging gardens, for out of their sodden muck the fringed gentians have lifted blue jewels. Such an October gentian, dusted with tamarack gold, is worth a full stop and a long look, even when the dog signals grouse ahead.” (7)

Before we move on to the other extirpated gentians it should be noted that there is another plant in the Garden with “gentian” in its name but it is not a gentian - it is the Horse Gentian, found in the prairie. Its scientific name is Triosteum perfoliatum, and it is in the honeysuckle family - not really a gentian at all. It is an interesting, somewhat coarse plant, with conspicuous reddish flowers and then yellow-orange fruits in the leaf axils.

Lesser Fringed gentian
Lesser Fringed Gentian (Gentianopsis virgata ssp. virgata Former G. procera.) Photo Aaron Carlson, Wisconsin Flora.
Horse Gentian
Horse Gentian (Triosteum perfoliatum) with the orange autumn fruit. Photo G D Bebeau

Other Historical Gentians

Both Eloise Butler and Martha Crone added other species of Gentians during their tenures. None survive today. In the listing are the name used in prior years and a current name if different, native to Minnesota or not, years planted, and the original source.

Pleated Gentian
Pleated Gentian
Gentiana affinis
Photo Al Schneider, USDA-NRCS Plants Database
Stiff Gentian
Stiff Gentian
Gentianella quinquefolia var. occidentalis
Photo G D Bebeau
Arctic Gentian
Arctic Gentian
Gentiana algida
Photo Al Schneider, USDA-NRCS Plants Database
Great Lakes Gentian
Great Lakes Gentian
Gentiana rubricaulis
Photo Emmett J. Judziewicz, Wisconsin Flora.
soapwort gentian
Soapwort Gentian
Gentiana saponaria
Photo Jim Stasz, USDA-NRCS Plants Database
Spurred Gentian
Spurred Gentian
Halenia deflexa
Photo Aaron Carlson, Wisconsin Flora.