A number of species of Gentian, a very beautiful wildflower, bloom in the midst of autumn after the reds and magentas of ironweed and Joe Pye weed are past. You may notice splashes of blue in the meadows and along the woodland trails. The most common gentians in Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest and the Slickrock Wilderness are a light to medium blue. More unusual, the Bottle Gentian (Gentiana clausa) has one of the most striking deep blues I have ever seen in a wildflower. Gentians seem to wait until all the other flowers have stopped blooming and gone to seed. Perhaps a few New England Asters remain and certainly some white Snakeroot, but they pale in comparison to the gentians.
The genus Gentiana is named for Gentius, a king of Illyria, on the Adriatic Sea. He reigned during the second century B.C. According to both the Roman naturalist Pliny and his contemporary Dioscorides, A Greek Physician, Gentius discovered the power of these plants. He found that the yellow gentian that grew in his country could be used to treat the malaria that plagued his soldiers. However, Gentiana was used in medicine in ancient Egypt and was found mentioned on a papyrus found in an Egyptian tomb from about a thousand years before Gentius was born!
Gentians are perennial. You can find six or seven different species here. The tubular flowers are pollinated by bumblebees, who push their way into the blossom through the narrow opening at the top. Sometimes they even are forced to chew a hole in the side of the flower to get inside to the delicious nectar. Once the blue flower is pollinated it begins to turn a dusty purple color.
Soapwort Gentian (Gentiana Saponaria) gets its name from its soapy sap. Appalachian Gentians (Gentiana decora) have white tubular flowers with blue lobes, giving it a striped appearance. Its flowers stay more open at the top.
The primary use of the plant throughout the centuries was as an appetite and digestive stimulant. In fact, a traditional Appalachian home remedy is to carry a piece of the root to increase your stamina and strength. Recent research has validated the use of this plant to stimulate the appetite. Apparently, some of the bitter components of the root have this effect.
Stiff Gentian (Gentianella quinquefolis) is a different but closely related species. It definitely looks a bit different than the other gentians in our area. It has long, thin blossoms that are a violet blue to lilac. It is said that pioneers added a little bit of this gentian to gin, brandy and even moonshine to stimulate the appetite and to aid digestion. This habit spread and even today there are several aperitifs that include an extract made from gentian.
Gentians are not tall plants, so remember to look down at the sides of the trail as you hike. You can still find them blooming as late as mid-November along the double loop trail.