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When the flowers of summer pass and the somber browns of early fall begin to creep in, the brilliant blue bottle gentians (Gentiana andrewsii) are at their peak. Few other wildflowers boast the same intense blue, and none so late in the season as this perennial.
Bottle gentian is the agreeable cousin in a family of wildflowers that is notoriously difficult to grow. Other gentians require precise growing conditions, good luck and are fussy to cultivate; they are best enjoyed in their native habitats. Bottle gentian, however, is quite happy in most garden situations and even grows well in boggy soils.
I first came to know it in my grandmother's Sawyer County garden where it has grown for 40 years or more. My grandmother loved its ethereal blue flowers that formed sturdy, long-lived clumps. It prefers full sun but will flower well in partial shade. This gentian is native to northeastern Canada and New England; west to Missouri and Nebraska; and south to North Carolina.
Bottle gentian grows up to 24 inches tall. Pairs of medium sized leaves grow opposite each other attached directly to the stem. The foliage turns mahogany in late fall and remains untroubled by insects or disease. The 1½ inch flask-shaped flowers appear from late August into September, clustered atop the stem and upper leaf axils. The flowers fade with age to a dull purple without opening fully.
This adaptation is a matter of speculation that may have evolved to ensure self-pollination, or as an efficient way to keep the pollen grains dry. Botanist Ross Clark has wryly observed that the flower might accommodate the bumblebee's habit of staying out all night. A late foraging bee could wrest its way in through the top of the flower if rendered flightless by the sudden coolness of an early fall evening. The bottle shape would provide safe haven until morning. Though bees will also spend the night on other flowers, such as goldenrod and coneflower, none offer the same unique protection.
In moist cool gardens, bottle gentian will self-sow readily but does not become invasive. First year plants are weak-kneed tikes that gain strength in their second and third year when the breathtaking blue flowers begin to appear. In my grandmother's garden, bottle gentians scramble amid cinnamon fern, thimble flower and jack-in-the-pulpit. Some years, the gentians are large and full, peeking from below and behind the ferns. Other years, when the weather has been lean and dry, the gentian tends to be leaner and smaller. Nearly every year, seedlings push their way through a tangle of periwinkle, trillium and jack-in-the-pulpit. It is an eye-pleasing chaos and I am suddenly struck with the feeling that my grandmother might appear at any minute from behind the garden shed, trowel in hand, ready to tame the wild garden and reclaim her bottle gentian.
Beth Gollan Capettini writes from Batavia, Illinois.