(Gentiana crinita) Gentian family
Flowers - Deep, bright blue, rarely white, several or many, about
2 in. high, stiffly erect, and solitary at ends of very long
foot-stalk. Calyx of 4 unequal, acutely pointed lobes. Corolla
funnel form, its four lobes spreading, rounded,
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,
Preferred Habitat - Low, moist meadows and woods.
Flowering Season - September-November.
Distribution - Quebec, southward to Georgia, and westward beyond
"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 fail
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 of
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 Gray) 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.
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