Our prairie remnant on a sunny, south-facing slope just off the top of a ridge had been farmed for years and then planted by the owner before us in rows of pine and spruce. Some of the trees were 5 years old. Some were nearer 15. The older trees were starting to knit their branches together to block the sky, and their needles were beginning to blanket the ground when a naturalist walked through them with us and noted a few straggling cone flowers and other prairie stragglers were hanging in there.
Time was when I thought that land just needed to be left alone so that nature could “do her thing.” But you can’t just let a disappearing native environment take care of itself anymore than you would leave a hit and run victim by the side of the road.
Drawing a line around the acre and a half that had the most prairie plants poking through the pines, we cut down those evergreens (may the tree gods have mercy on my soul), began to burn each spring and waited to see what would happen.
Every summer we walk the remnant repeatedly to cull out the invasives we can identify; surgically removing the wild parsnip and multiflora rose and little pink-handled umbrellas of sumac and Canada thistle and white and red sweet clover – the list seems to grow.
But so does the list of fresh native faces that are reappearing in what was once a place of prairie as far as the eye could see.
Now that almost all the prairie life has dropped back down into its roots leaving a waving sea of sentinel stalks, we had a double treat last Saturday.
There is a plant that we had been puzzling over for weeks. I had tried to key it out by its pale lavender color, but no luck. Then I bought a set of note cards with pen-and-ink drawings of prairie flowers at the UW Arboretum book store. (Drawn especially for the Friends of the Arboretum by Elizabeth de Boor. Thanks Elizabeth!) Without the color to distract me, I realized my mystery plant is a member of the gentian family.
Gentian blooms in the fall, and tend to be bluish purple. This one was much paler, but clearly a Fringed-tipped Closed Gentian, also known as bottle gentian, or formally as Gentiana andrewsii. (I wonder who discovered this variety.) Check out the details here. This is the every useful website of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center (see my post on Four Fabulous Wildflower Sanctuaries here. )
It’s a rugged individualist. Not only does it flower late in the fall, but it plays hard to get. It’s buds, rich with pollen, never open, and the only insects strong enough to get inside are burly big bumblebees. This gives the bumblers a special cache of pollen and provides the “bottle” of gentian with true fans. One of those little win-win scenarios that make your heart beat fast.
This tiny colony of three plants is camping exactly at the point where our trail comes out of the woods and enters the prairie, and I hope it will greet us there from now on.
As we continued our turn about the prairie, as we often do when we first arrive from town, I was feeling almost dizzy with the excitement of discovery when several hundred yards further we saw more purple coming up in the path in front of us. Yet another gentian species! Stiff Gentian, or Gentianella quinqefoli. Check out this website for the dirty details.
This is the first time we have seen either of these in our prairie, and every new returnee merits emotional fireworks and hypothetical decorated cake.
I have read that Native Americans used Gentian’s bitter root for a tonic. And Doug always likes to know the Floristic Quality Index Coefficient of Conservatism which is a number from 0 to 10 indicating how likely this plant species is to occur in any spot that was lucky enough to survive untouched since pre-settlement times.
Plants with high C value are very specialized and only found in restricted environments. Obviously anything that can make a comeback in our much degraded prairie is not likely to be very picky. I like to think of them as more plucky.
So I was surprised to find that the stiff gentian has a C of 7 and bottle gentian 6. . Now that I have found this useful site, I plan to figure out what the “mean coefficient of conservatism” for our little remnant is. But medical uses and numerical grades aside, my eyes now recognize and will constantly be scouting for and always trying to protect two more members of our prairie family.
Our ongoing restoration of a prairie, a glade and their surrounding woods and savanna sometimes feels like an ark to me. But that analogy breaks down in that a real boat would be prone to sink – the more species it contained. But actually, the more species that we can protect, the more vital and safe the whole becomes.
So welcome aboard, my dear Cousins Gentian. Welcome aboard!