Fall Gentians of the Southeast — 2018-11-02

Fall, having thrust itself on us in the Southeast, I thought it would be fun and maybe a bit instructive to write a blog post about the southeastern Gentians. According to Jim Drake in his illuminating, self-published book, Gentians of the Eastern United States, the plant family Gentianaceae contains 87 genera and more than 1600 species worldwide. But I will restrict myself to three genera, Gentiana, Gentianopsis, and Gentianella, each well represented in the southeast. Incidentally, they all bloom during the fall, September through November. I had actually planned to make a short field trip to the upper reaches of Greenville County, South Carolina to photograph a population of Gentiana saponaria or Soapwort Gentian aka Harvest Bells which I’ve been following the past couple of weeks from bud to bloom, but it is pouring rain as we speak. Maybe tomorrow… This is what they looked like in full bloom a couple of years ago:

Soapwort GentianSoapwort Gentian

This particular species is found in eastern North America, along the Gulf Coast and into Texas. It comes in several flavors as you can see in the following image:

Soapwort Gentian

I think these flowers are vaguely patriotic in their red, white, and blue hues. This one was photographed beside a dusty, two-track road in Floyd County, Georgia. Although, for the most part, the flowers remain closed, there are occasions when I’ve seen plants with open flowers, but these observations are rare, in my experience:

Soapwort Gentian

It can also be found in a striped form as in the image below:

Soapwort Gentian

This striped form brings to mind another striped Gentian species, Gentiana decora or Showy Gentian:

Showy Gentian

This is another species I’ve seen with open flowers:

Showy Gentian

Then there are these bad boys for which I’m still not confident I know the identification. They have characteristics of both Soapwort Gentian as well as Showy Gentian. I have to believe that those two species are capable of crossing, so maybe this is the result. Who knows? I surely do not! In any case, here are some examples of these weird Gentians:

Possibly Showy Gentian Possibly Showy Gentian
Possibly Showy Gentian Possibly Showy Gentian

Possibly Showy Gentian

A very deep purple/blue species, quite rare and relatively recently named, is Gentiana latidens or Balsam Mountain Gentian. It is found scattered only in several high-mountain counties of North Carolina, and it can be seen in spots along the Blue Ridge Parkway:

Balsam Mountain Gentian

Balsam Mountain Gentian

I’ve not witnessed open flowers on this species, which makes challenging work for its pollinator, usually a Bombus or Bumblebee species as seen on the faded flowers in this short video:

Another high-elevation Gentian species is Gentiana austromontana or Southern Mountain Gentian aka Appalachian Gentian. It can be found in North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, and Tennessee. I had photographed this species for a few years in North Carolina before I was able to attach a name to it:

Southern Mountain Gentian

Here it is being targeted by another Bombus species:

Southern Mountain Gentian

Now, let us look at the Coastal Plains Gentians. There is a Gentian species found on the Coastal Plain that closely resembles the previously mentioned Soapwort Gentian. It is Gentiana catesbaei or Elliot’s Gentian aka Catesby’s Gentian. It is found along the eastern coast from Pennsylvania to Florida. This species, like Gentiana saponaria, shows itself in a variety of color forms:

Elliot's Gentian

Elliot's Gentian Elliot's Gentian

Elliot's Gentian

On bright, sunny days, most of the flowers open, allowing smaller insects like the Hover Fly, below, to enter and not have to fight its way into the flower for nectar:

Gentiana catesbaei with hover fly

On cloudy days, the flowers tend to remain closed, but are no match for the strong Bombus or Bumblebee species as seen in the video below:

There is another remarkable Gentian species found along the Coastal Plain from New Jersey down through Georgia. It is Gentiana autumnalis or Pine Barren Gentian. Its electric blue color is striking to see in the wild, usually eliciting gasps among first-time viewers:

Pine Barren Gentian

Pine Barren Gentian

It is also a favorite of the Hover Fly:

Pine Barren Gentian and Hover Fly

Although the large percentage of flowers have 5 petals, it is not uncommon to find those with either 6 petals or 4 petals:

6-petaled Pine Barren Gentian 4-petaled Pine Barren Gentian

I can not leave this genus without mentioning one of the color forms that just takes my breath away. My good friend and noted photographer, Chris Davidson who lives in New Jersey, has photographed a pink form of this species that is indescribable. The best way tell you about it is to show you a couple of his images:

Pine Barren Gentian - pink form Pine Barren Gentian - pink form

Nothing else need be said…

The next Gentian is also in the genus, Gentiana, and I was fortunate to photograph it in the Panhandle of Florida a couple of years ago. It is Gentiana pennellina or Wiregrass Gentian. It very much looks like the Pine Barren Gentian, but it is bright white instead of electric blue. As far as I know, it is found exclusively in a handful of counties in the Panhandle of florida. Here are some examples:

Wiregrass Gentian

Wiregrass Gentian Wiregrass Gentian

The next genus I will cover is Gentianopsis. The sole species found in the Southeast, and that, only sparingly, is Gentianopsis crinita or Greater Fringed Gentian. It is much more frequent in the northern states and in Canada, but it manages to creep into northern Georgia at its southernmost range. This is a species I never miss an opportunity to photograph, because of its color and beauty. Here are some examples:

Greater Fringed Gentian

Greater Fringed Gentian Greater Fringed Gentian

If you can arrive at the site earlier enough, you might be greeted with the flower buds covered with dew. Like many of the Gentian species, the flowers do not open fully until there is bright sunshine.

Greater Fringed Gentian Greater Fringed Gentian

Greater Fringed Gentian

The “silky” sheen on the flower petals in full sunlight is quite unlike anything else I’ve ever seen:

Greater Fringed Gentian Greater Fringed Gentian

The final southeastern Gentian genus I will mention is Gentianella or Dwarf Gentian. There are about 256 species in this genus scattered all over the world, but the one we have in the Southeast is Gentianella quinquefolia subspecies quinquefolia or Stiff Gentian aka Augeweed. It is a remarkable plant with hundreds of closed flowers ranging from white to deep purple. Although I’ve seen photos of the white form, I’ve never managed to find one to photograph. The flowers are generally tightly closed, but I have seen a few plants with open flowers. In the Carolinas, they can be found in the high mountains, more specifically, along the roadside of the Blue Ridge Parkway at around 5,000 feet (1,525 meters) in elevation.

Here is a selection of images (all photographed along the Blue Ridge Parkway in western North Carolina) showing the wide variation of color forms exhibited by this species:

Stiff Gentian Stiff Gentian
Stiff Gentian Stiff Gentian
Stiff Gentian Stiff Gentian

Plants with many clusters of flowers are not uncommon:

Stiff Gentian

I hope you have enjoyed this little foray into some of the Gentianaceae of the Southeast. This family of plants is one of my favorites, not only because of the wide range of vibrant color, but because many of them can be found close to home. When many of the other summer wildflowers have gone to seed, this family of flowering plants is just getting started. Only the heavy winter frosts can put a damper on these beauties in the Southeast.

Until next time…



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18 Responses

  1. Stunning photos Jim. Incredible beauty. We were in the NC mountains last weekend and didn’t see anything like this. Really didn’t know to look for them. Thanks for sharing.

  2. I love your blog posts and photos! I happen to be in North Carolina now, and would love to know of a spot near to where I am, where I might find gentians. My mobility is limited, but if it’s not too much of a walk, I’d be able to look. I’m quite close to Hanging Rock State Park, about an hour’s drive from Greensboro, NC. I’m helping out an ill relative, but if I can get away for a bit, I’d love to go find some gentians! Thank you for any tips you might have.
    Tracy Johnson

  3. I’m sitting here watching my wife die of metastatic breast cancer and this blog brought me great joy! Thank you!

  4. What a beautiful presentation. I’ve never seen this flower in Ohio or Pennsylvania where, I now live. Very happy I found this site.

  5. Under the last Gentiana austromontana picture: Pennsylvania has no coast, Jersey has it all from New York to Delaware. Gentiana autumnalis has interesting bloom cycle: comes up one sex, closes up. then re-emerges another day the opposite sex.

  6. I *almost* wish I could comment on the individual photos. Then again, I’d still be here a week later, commenting! Very nice…and I’m sure this will make you happy (would for me)…educational. Awesome job, my friend.

  7. Lovely! Your photos are so amazing! Gentians are one of my favorite flowers–never knew there were so many different species. I particularly love the photos of the gentians covered in droplets of dew. You’ve inspired me to try to locate the book and some flowers in my area of the Appalachians.

  8. I certainly enjoyed your Gentianaceae of the Southeast. Such beauty in each of the species you showed us. On to flickr, now!

  9. Jim, these must be some of your most stunning photos ever. The shades and subtlety of the blues, their contrast with autumn colors, the depth of fields, and of course the movies, are absolutely wonderful.

  10. Fantastic photo essay of the southeastern gentians!
    I live in Missouri, where we have somewhat fewer species, but they are always a joy to find and behold.

    (Pssst, those bumblebees are all girls. Guy bees just don’t work that hard, nor ever gather pollen.)

  11. Gentianella quinq. is common here in the upper Midwest as well, often on limey, rocky soils. When clearing prairies of brush, it is one of the first responders in the ground flora. I remember when it was unusual to see it. Now I see it all the time in the fall.

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