It’s hard enough for me to get my kayak down a whitewater river upright without being distracted by flowers along the way. I am happy to say on my latest voyage, it was not the blooms that tripped me up but my own inexperience. (I’m still learning the basics when it comes to whitewater kayaking and as the two River Zen Masters in my life constantly remind me “Kayaking is what you do between swims”… it is my own mantra now.)
Paddling with other horticulturally-minded people means extra time on the water, paddling back upstream to get a closer look at the flowers along the bank. This trip was no exception. Today’s distraction – Closed Gentians. I don’t know if it is the seeming simplicity of these flowers, the intense color or their apparent rarity that makes me stop (or paddle back upstream) to look at them, closely, and for a while, every time I see them. This day these were blooming along with White Turtleheads (Chelone glabra), and Red Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinals).
The first time I was stunned into reverent silence by these was on a spur-of-the-moment stop at an outdoor art installation a good friend told us we couldn’t miss since we were already in the area. Sure, we told him, we’d check it out and thanks for the heads up. We got to the art exhibit and thought we would spend 45 minutes or an hour there and head on our way. That was before we realized A. We could climb on the art! and B. there were wildflowers everywhere!
4 1/2 hours later we decide we better hit the road or we’ll be sleeping along the side of the road in the van again!
Griffis Sculpture Park is a magical place. Over 250 sculptures placed along miles of trails among acres of woodlands and meadows. Did I mention you can explore the sculptures from within and on top and below? It is an art playground!
Besides the stunning sculptures surprising you with their size and subject around every corner, the blue gentians blooming at meadow’s edge captured our attention.
Up until this point I had only seen these in the protected and manicured confines of a Public Garden. And while the sculpture park is protected and maintained, horticulture and the display of plants is not the focus, the art is, and so finding these small gentians hidden among the sculptural giants was just as exciting as finding the art.
Closed Gentian (Gentiana clausa) and their close relatives the Bottle Gentian (Gentiana andewsii) have flowers that never really open. (To tell the difference between the two – look for a fringe on the top of the Bottle Gentian which give the blossoms a glass soda bottle shape.) It’s hard to imagine they ever get pollinated at all, one may think the only way they propagate is by spreading their roots. In fact hummingbirds and bumblebees find this late summer and fall bloom irresistible.
Bumblebees are the strong-men of the pollinator circus. They use their front legs to pry open the flowers of the gentian, crawl inside head-first, gather nectar and pollen and reemerge from their purple confines, head first. According to Jack Sanders in his book The Secrets of Wildflowers “…the flowers are actually designed to attract and serve the bee. Being closed protects the nectar from rain and pilfering insects of lesser strength, and the flower tips are specially coded to let the bees know which ones have already been drained of their sweets.” According to Sanders, American illustrator and naturalist William Hamilton Gibson observed a bee over a cluster of closed gentians. He noticed the bee only entered one flower in the cluster. He took a closer look and noticed the flower the bee entered had a white spot, or nectar guide, on the tip where the others were only purple at the apex. This is the plant’s way of telling bees “Don’t waste your time, you aren’t the first”.
When you are out on your adventures, you will know to look for gentians when the Goldenrods and Turtleheads are starting to bloom, the Joe-Pye Weed is just finishing up and the Cardinal Flower has been going strong. There are gentians that open their petals wide in the typical ways of flowers, but to find closed gentians your gaze should be directed towards shady nooks, rich woodland soil along the edges of mature and healthy forests.
Think it takes Moxie to kayak down the whitewater of the Lehigh or for a little bee to look at this closed flower and say “I got this!”? Well, that’s just fitting, turns out the bitter taste of Moxie, a soda closely associated with courage and daring, is created by the addition of Gentian root extract.