In Bloom: The Grand Gentian Finale
If all good things, including wildflower season, must come to an end, they should at least conclude on a high note. The arrival of the gentian family to our mountains provides just that happy ending. With their elegant shapes, rich hues of purple, blue, and lavender, and sheer abundance, gentians make for a finale worthy of a fireworks show.
Named for Gentius, ancient king of the Adriatic country of Illyria who purportedly discovered the anti-malarial properties of the flower, the gentian family is represented most commonly in our area by five late-blooming species, all of which are out right now.
Perhaps most numerous, gracing wet mountain meadows and roadside ditches alike, is fringed gentian, Gentianopsis detonsa. Its single flowers are composed of four fringed, deep-purple petals that twist gracefully around each other. Equally common is the bottle gentian, Gentiana parryi, whose wide-mouthed, royal blue and green flowers invite the largest bumblebees to drop in.
Star gentian, Swertia perennis, produces elongated clusters of elegant, dusky-purple, star-shaped flowers. Autumn dwarf gentian, Gentianella amarella, has smaller lavender flowers with unusual fringes in their centers. All four of these gentians are generally found in wet subalpine and alpine meadows and riparian areas.
On dryer alpine slopes look for arctic gentian, Gentiana algida. Nestled in a rosette of narrow leaves, this greenish-white, accordion-pleated goblet is decorated with whimsical purple spots and streaks. To my mind, arctic gentian is one of our loveliest flowers.
It also stirs the greatest melancholy, as it is among the last flowers to bloom in the high country. When I see arctic gentian, I know it is time to give thanks for another glorious summer spent among the wildflowers. And to ask silently, greedily perhaps, for at least a few more.
Why do we love wildflowers like we do? I recently asked a group of friends on a summer hut trip just this question, and was rewarded with the following answers:
One friend cited the juxtaposition of the macro (the sprawling peaks and valleys that are the setting for the flowers) with the micro (the intricacy, variety, and utter uniqueness of each individual flower).
Several cited the inspiration they derived from the resiliency shown by wildflowers living in the harshest conditions, in places covered in snow most of the year, where human beings make only brief appearances.
One said a meadow of wildflowers feels like the earth singing. Another that a wildflower meadow becomes for her a visual palette of colors, vibrating and bumping up against each other.
All agreed that paying attention to the flowers helped them get out of their heads and into their bodies. It allowed them to “be there” on the hike, rather than “get there.” Paying attention to the flowers also relieved them of all-too-frequent self-absorption, reminding them of the wider, dazzlingly beautiful world we live in. What a blessing to forget ourselves for awhile! May such blessings be yours for many summers to come.
Karin Teague, Director of the Independence Pass Foundation, is a 25-year resident of the Roaring Fork Valley and devoted student of its wildflowers. She already can’t wait for Summer 2022.