Friday, October 06, 2006

Fringed Gentians: "The spirit of their loveliness escapes imprisonment"

The rarest habitat within a short distance of where I live is an eight-acre calcareous fen at the headwaters of a small drainage that flows toward Long Island Sound. It lies over a tongue of Inwood marble bedrock, which enriches the groundwater that feeds it and turns it alkaline, making for a harsh and specialized habitat. Grass-of-parnassus grows there, and pitcher plants. I tend to be wide-eyed at any flower I find there, assuming it’s a rarity, which can lead to occasions like the time I carefully keyed-out a cluster of violets growing among the sphagnum only to learn that they were nothing different than the common violets that grow in my lawn.

I was there yesterday morning and the sun was so sharp and the contrast so high it was difficult to see what was growing. But after a little searching, I found a number of fringed gentians (Gentianopsis crinita), a first for me. Most of the plants bore one flower but a couple had two and one had three. There’s a group of women in my town who go out once a week on flower- or bird-finding walks, and I asked one of them, via e-mail yesterday, where else one can find fringed gentians near here. She replied with the general location and then said that this year the group found a stalk with 42 flowers.

In 1898, in a book called Wild Flowers of the North-Eastern States (“With three hundred and eight illustrations the size of life”), Ellen Miller and Margaret Christine Whiting wrote of the fringed gentian, “Though often low, and bearing but one flower, it is not uncommon to find a single tall stalk adorned with a dozen or two of blossoms, and a reliable observer reports having found plants 5 feet in stature, and bearing upwards of a hundred flowers and buds apiece!”

I wasn’t wearing the right boots yesterday, and had to get to the office in any case, and so I couldn’t look as far and wide through the wet meadow as I might have wanted. As it was, I felt lucky to find any gentians, given the number of deer around here and how they’ve all but destroyed the local flora. But deer aren’t the only reasons fringed gentians are hard to find. Of the plants bearing upwards of a hundred flowers, Miller and Whiting added, “This remarkable luxuriance could only have occurred in some solitary mountain glen unknown to the gentian-hunter, who, between greedy admiration of its beauty and ignorance of its habits, is doing his best to exterminate the plant…. For the aesthetic pleasure also it is best not to pluck them; their charm loses its subtlety when carried into civilized environments – the spirit of their loveliness escapes imprisonment.”

My friend who found the stalk with 42 flowers claimed to be unable to describe exactly where she saw them. And I’m pretty sure I’d be unable to retrace yesterday morning’s steps.


Blogger Sam said...

Just like certain sea native grasses are a barometer of the health of the Sound, the local wild plants and amphibians are as a barometer of the landside ecology. And they're going fast.

Thanks for the posting and please send more about plant ecology ... that ending was excellent, may I add. /Sam

3:13 PM  
Blogger Hungry Hyaena said...

Lovely post, Tom. Thanks for the introduction to the flower. I'd never heard of it, nor seen it.

10:18 AM  

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