Plant of the Week
Meadow Fringed Gentian (Gentianopsis thermalis)
By Walter Fertig
King Gentius is best known as the last monarch of the Kingdom of Illyria on the Adriatic Coast (modern day Albania and Montenegro) before it was conquered by the Romans in 165 BC. In his ancient encyclopedia, Natural History, Pliny the Elder gave Gentius credit for discovering the use of the root of the yellow gentian (Gentiana lutea) for curing malaria. Linnaeus later immortalized Gentius by naming the genus Gentiana (and ultimately the gentian family, Gentianaceae) in his honor.
At one time taxonomists recognized more than 325 species in the genus Gentiana, ranging across the Northern Hemisphere and the Andes of South America. Most gentians have blue to purple flowers with four or five petals fused at the base into a tube. Often the area between the corolla lobes is pleated, or the lobes are variously fringed on their margins or at their base within the floral tube. Due to this variability, the genus has been split into three main groups, usually recognized as separate genera. The group of approximately 25 north temperate species with four fringed petals and lacking pleats are now placed in the genus Gentianopsis (literally translated as “Gentiana-like”) and called the fringed gentians. These species can also be recognized by their seeds that are covered by scale-like papillae (best seen under high magnification).
Meadow fringed gentian (Gentianopsis thermalis) is widespread across northern Canada and south through the Rocky Mountains to New Mexico, Utah, and Nevada. The species is sometimes split into two, with G. detonsa restricted to Canada and G. thermalis to the Rockies. Meadow fringed gentian is an annual with several stems arising from near the base and opposite leaves. The flowers are 1 ½ to 3 inches long and deep blue, with four petals that are coarsely toothed or fringed along the margins. When the flower is closed, as often happens on a cloudy day, the four petals become coiled, much like the blades of a windmill. Other Gentianopsis species differ mainly in having unbranched stems or a perennial growth form. The species is often locally common in moist meadows and stream banks in mountainous areas.
Gentians are still used medicinally in Europe in folk and commercial remedies to treat urinary infections and stimulate digestion. Native Americans also utilized certain species to treat headaches and as an antidote for witchcraft. More study is needed to determine if Gentianopsis has efficacy in warding off witches.