Fringed Gentian – A Poets’ Passion – Imagine a plant, native to New Jersey, so special it inspired both famed poets Emily Dickinson and William Cullen Bryant to write poems about it, and it was also a favorite of Henry David Thoreau’s! Fringed Gentian by Dickinson and To The Fringed Gentian by Bryant, pay tribute to this herbaceous biennial’s unique characteristics as well as its inherent beauty.
Fringed Gentian (Gentianopsis crinite) is native to only a small part of the world; specifically, the eastern regions of the United States and Canada, roughly from the southern Appalachian mountains north to New England and west to Manitoba and Iowa.
The plant, which can reach a height from between 1-3 feet, has delicate, feather-like fringed flowers that are a brilliant, iridescent blue and emit a subtle, sweet scent. One of its most unique characteristics is its sensitivity to light. The blooms of the Fringed Gentian only open on sunny days, remaining snuggly closed when days are gray. Though native to our region, the plant is not overly prevalent, due in part to its relatively short life span – one to two years – and the ongoing loss of its natural habitat.
Fringed Gentian is most often found along the limey soils of stream banks, damp sand prairies and wet meadows, as well as sparsely wooded areas. Pollinators such as bumblebees are especially attracted to the flowers and are one of the few bees large enough and strong enough to burrow into the plant’s tightly closed blooms on cloudy days. Another unique aspect of the plant is the fact that it blooms late in the season – during the months of August, September, October into early November. Fringed Gentian is very small the first year of its life and doesn’t bloom until the second year.
Growing Fringed Gentian at Home
Fringed Gentian may not be the easiest plant to grow, but its beauty certainly makes it worth taking on the challenge. The plant doesn’t like to be disturbed, so growing from seeds is probably your best bet (and please, never disturb any plants you may find in the wild). Note that many seeds of native plants have inherent dormancy habits that inhibit seed germination during unfavorable conditions in nature. To break Fringed Gentian seeds dormancy, mix the seeds with moist sand and store in the refrigerator for 60-90 days before starting seedlings.
Sow seeds in flats in late spring placed outside in a cold frame or sheltered spot. The soil temperature should be around 70o F. A good soil mixture for these seeds is two parts peat to one part sand for good drainage. Spread a layer of milled sphagnum moss (about ¼ inch) on top and sow the seeds on top of the moss. Mist the surface often to keep it from drying out. It should take about 2 weeks for the seeds to germinate, but don’t be discouraged if they take longer. When the hair-like roots of the seedlings reach the bottom of the flat, carefully move them to 2”-3” containers, making sure not to disturb the roots. You can use the same soil mixture you grew the seeds in. As the seedlings grow larger, you can very carefully move them into 6” pots to overwinter in a cold frame or protected spot. Be sure to keep them well-watered. In spring, you can then transplant these plants to the spot you want them in the garden – in full sun where the soil is moist and partial shade in drier spots. Amend the soil with sand or fine gravel for drainage and mulch deeply with compost, peat or rotted leaves. Be sure to water frequently.
To The Fringed Gentian
By William Cullen Bryant
Thou blossom bright with autumn dew,
And colored with the heaven’s own blue,
That openest when the quiet light
Succeeds the keen and frosty night.
Thou comest not when violets lean
O’er wandering brooks and springs unseen,
Or columbines, in purple dressed,
Nod o’er the ground-bird’s hidden nest.
Thou waitest late and com’st alone,
When woods are bare and birds are 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.
I would that thus, when I shall see
The hour of death draw near to me,
Hope, blossoming within my heart,
May look to heaven as I depart.
By Emily Dickinson
God made a little gentian;
It tried to be a rose
And failed, and all the summer laughed.
But just before the snows
There came a purple creature
That ravished all the hill;
And summer hid her forehead,
And mockery was still.
The frosts were her condition;
The Tyrian would not come
Until the North evoked it.
“Creator! shall I bloom?”