Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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The Gentians
Nature Bulletin No. 536-A   September 21, 1974
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

THE GENTIANS
There is a famous group of plants, the Gentians, which includes some of the most beautiful and, nowadays, the rarest of all wildflowers. They are widely distributed, from the tropics to the tundras near the Arctic Circle, but are most abundant in the northern hemisphere. Several kinds, with exquisite blossoms of heavenly blue, occur only in alpine meadows of the Rockies, the Alps, and other high mountain ranges. Many species exist only in lowlands or in very moist ground, but a few are native in dry places. Some like a limestone soil: others cannot endure it. Some are tall and many are dwarfs.

Gentians are chiefly perennials -- plants that continue to live from year to year -- but, with few exceptions, they are extremely difficult to transplant and grow in gardens. Although one alpine species, celebrated for its beautiful blue flowers, has been grown in England for more than a century, it does not do well in America. Our summers seem to be too hot and dry. Only three or four kinds of gentians are successfully cultivated in this country by anyone other than an expert horticulturist.

Seventy years ago, in the horse-and-buggy days, there were at least seven kinds of the true gentians growing in the Chicago region, and four or five closely related species. Some of them were abundant in the moors and sandy flats north of Waukegan, and in similar locations from South Chicago to Michigan City, Indiana. Cities such as Gary, Whiting, and East Chicago did not exist then. Some kinds were abundant or common in the prairies, around the sloughs, in the North Shore ravines, and along some of the streams in Cook County.

By 1927 most gentians had become much less common, and some were very rare. In part this was due to the rapid expansion of industrial and residential developments which destroyed their favorite habitats. Some kinds, prized for their beauty, also disappeared because they were picked and dug up for sale by commercial flower gatherers, or by amateur botanists and the general public. Today, in the Chicago region, there are seven kinds of gentians still growing in out-of-the-way locations known only to professional people.

One of these is the Closed Gentian -- also known as the Blind, or Bottle, or Barrel Gentian -- which is remarkable because, at the top of a stout stem from one to two feet tall, it bears a cluster of deep blue club- shaped flowers that never open completely. Like most gentians, it does not bloom until August, lasts until mid-autumn, and on cold, cloudy days its blossoms are tightly closed.

Another species, a close relative of the true gentians, is the American- Columbo. It becomes six or seven feet tall and bears a cluster of yellowish flowers spotted with brown dots. Only one small colony remains in this region.

Still another is the Five-flowered Gentian or Ague Weed, a slender much-branched plant that grows in rich woods and on moist hillsides. Its flowers, rather small, vary in color from pale blue to yellowish.

Most gorgeous of all is the Eastern Fringed Gentian but, as elsewhere in northeastern America, it is almost extinct in the Chicago area. It stems, from one to three feet tall, have many upright branches and bear several flowers, about two inches long, exquisitely blue and fringed along their margins. In his ode to this gentian, William Cullen Bryant wrote: Then doth they 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.


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