pierre laszlo

Gentiana genus (Gentianaceae)

Plant of the month (©Pierre Laszlo, all rights reserved)
Gentiana genus (Gentianaceae)

A plant genus brings together many species — about 400 in this case. They need not look alike. My favorite example is that of two European species of gentians. They are both found on high plateau terrain, at elevations about 4,000-5,000 ft. The two habitats are the Aubrac and the Vercors. The former is a volcanic granitic area, shaved by glacier flow several millennia ago into a planar area. It is located in central France, a southern part of the Massif Central. The Vercors, a part of the Prealps range, in-between the Rhône valley and the Alps, made of limestone conversely, shows impressive biodiversity. 
Wild flowers from the Aubrac serve as some of the primary materials for perfumes. Another plant, the yellow gentian, Gentiana lutea, is cultivated on the Aubrac. Its roots are the basis for bittersweet aperitif wines, known collectively as gentianes. The plant is very tall, 1-2 m high. It sports large, fleshy leaves. It has a hollow stem. The flowers are a bright yellow. 
The Vercors hosts the blue gentian, Gentiana acaulis, a perennial, usually much smaller in height, 10-50 cm, than its yellow cousin. It is colored blue, the brighter at higher elevations, where the density of pigments increases, in order to face strong ultraviolet light. 
The same genus has also an American species, Gentiana catesbei. It grows in the swampy areas from Virginia to Florida and has showy, pale blue flowers which appear in the late fall from September to December. 
In like manner to the Aubrac gentian, its roots also served to prepare a drink. The Catawba American Indians used this plant for medicinal purposes. They would steep the roots in hot water and then use the produced liquid to sooth sore backs. 
It is also memorable for this lovely poem by Emily Dickinson :

God made a little gentian;
It tried to be a rose
And failed, and all the summer laughed.
But just before the snows
There came a purple creature
That ravished all the hill;
And summer hid her forehead,
And mockery was still.
The frosts were her condition;
The Tyrian would not come
Until the North evoked it.
"Creator! shall I bloom?"