Shoreline Plants

Plant Science & Conservation

Garden Stories

Hidden Gems of the Prairie

Pondering the Prairie Series

Did I mention Gentian? If I didn’t, I should have. These are the stars of the autumn prairie. If you're lucky, you may stumble upon a prairie gentian ​(Gentiana puberulenta). You’ll find them among the myriad of pale blues, whites, and violets of the dominant fall asters, many of them blooming throughout October. Look for bottle and cream gentians in the Garden’s Dixon Prairie or elsewhere.

Buried beneath the riot of asters, sunflowers, goldenrods, and towering grasses are the brilliant blue-violet stars of the prairie gentian. Talk about taking your breath away! It seems that a brilliantly colored flower is necessary to attract pollinators to a plant of such short stature that chooses to bloom at a time when its grassland habitat has reached its peak height.

Prairie gentian can only be found in remnant prairies of high quality, of which very few have survived. To find this rare gem is a real treat.

Gentiana puberulentaGentiana puberulenta

Gentiana crinitaGentianopsis​ ​crinita


Equally impressive is its cousin, fringed gentian ​(Gentianopsis​ ​crinita). Fringed gentians can be found in greater concentrations in sand prairies, its preferred habitat. Although it is also short in stature, since sand prairie habitats do not support the density of vegetation indicative of black soil prairies, it is easier to locate.

Another, more common gentian of wet prairie is also worth a mention. Not so much for its brilliant color, although it is blue and fairly showy, but for the fact that its flower petals remain closed. This is the closed or bottle gentian ​(Gentiana andrewsii). F​ortunately, the larger bumblebee can force open the closed petals and pollinate the flowers. Smaller bees, which are unable to force their way in, will sometimes cut a slit at the base of the flower and steal nectar. Once, when I was photographing a closed gentian, I was surprised by a bee that emerged from the corolla, where it was completely hidden from view when I approached the plant.

One more gentian worth a mention is the cream gentian ​​(Gentiana alba), even though it is probably no longer in bloom. Easily recognized by the lack of blue in its flowers, this rare, cream-colored gentian can be found in prairies and savannas. It’s flowers don’t open as widely as prairie and fringed gentians and are not as closed as closed gentians.