April 23, 2006

Gentian-izing and Bitterroots

Last June, while botanizing in the Italian Alps, the mountain range known as the Dolomites in Northern Italy, within the Italian Alps, I became enamored again by the king of all blue flowers, the Gentian. (Here, the high alpine species of G. verna), common throughout the high alpine meadows in the Alps. When ever I speak on rare plants to Garden Clubs and Plant Societies, it is these blue flowers that illicit the most ooh's and ah's. Blue, does that sort of thing to humans since according to color theorists,( and my day job as a designer and Trend Hunter) the human brain it just "wired" to be attracted to anything shimmery or Blue, since primatively we associate this most magical of colors, the most reflective color, with life sustaining water. So diamonds,morning-glories, glitter, Mother-of pearl, butterflywings, even slices of Danish ham with rainbows are just plain captivating, in a very personal and primative way.

Last year, I decided to start annual botanizing trips to interesting places, starting with the classics hikes of old-time alpinists, of course, this brings one to the Alps. These pictures from June of 2005 are along the trail known as the Bindleweg, a trail hiked in 1909 by the father of rock gardening, Reginald Farrer which today is in Italy, but was located in Austria until the borders changed during WW1.

My experience with Gentians began early in life, when my father, a wildflower enthusiast and artist, would allow me to skip elementary school, so that we could go botanizing in the woods near our home (where I live now) in central Massachusetts. In September, our native Bottle Gentians would produce not blue, but deep violet closed blossoms along streams and in wet areas. As I grew older, I tended to keep an eye open for anything blue in fields or woods, since I associated finding Gentians as a sort of gift, a treasure to experience, I guess becuae finding them is a rare experience and years would pass between any sightings.

The name comes from Gentius, king of ancient Illyria (180-187 B.C.), who was the first to discover its theraputic values. Modern herbalists still use tinctures today, and in some countries, like Germany, it is frequently used as a stomach illness medicine. In America, you may be familar with the bitter flavor, since Gentian root extract provides the bitter taste in many soft drink formulas from the late 1800's, the soft drink brand known as Moxie is primarily Gentian root extract, but it is also used in the flavoring Worcestershire sauce, as well as one of the 'secret' ingredients in Coca Cola.

Although the plant is commonly called Bitterroot by some modern herbalists it is not where the Montana and Idaho mountain range known as the Bitterroots recieved their name. This came from the explorers Louis and Clark who named the mountains after another 'Bitterroot", the alpine plant Lousia redvida, a genus names after Meriweather Louis himself, and a species whose long bitter-tasting root was used by Native Americans also for medicinal uses. Gentiana acaulis is limited to growing wild in the Alps, Cevennes and the Pyrenees only above 1000 m. It is often known as the stemless gentian, since the flower balances on a very short peduncle. Other species or Gentian have 1 m. tall stems, but most alpine species are short. Even though is grows at high elevation, it is growable in USDA Zones 4-7, the plant shown far below in a trough was in bloom under the snow in January, here in Massachusetts.

I now grow, this giant flowered Gentian G. acaulis, which I saw all over high alpine meadows in the Italian Alps. In thier native habitat they grow in thick grass, which holds their wide trumbet flowers up, I grow mine in hypertufa troughs with gravel, as many alpine growers do. The large single blossoms of G. acaulis, albeit out of scale, can be appreciated up close or when the tiny troughs are moved up on a stone wall. There were so many Gentian species blooming in the Alps last summer, that I have been motivated to grow many from seed this year, for planting in troughs, completely dedicated to the species. I am not sure how much luck I will have, given our hot and humd summer climate, but these sort of things rarely stop plant geeks from trying.

One of the most beautiful species in the Dolomites was G. verna. So far, seed that I obtained from the North American Rock Garden Society seed exchange is sprouting, after spending the cold winter outdoors after sowing in gravel covered pots, to stratify the seed (providing a frozen period, stimulating chemicals neccessary for many alpines to germinate). Later this summer, we shall see if I have had any luck. Until then, I am in the process of deciding where to travel this year for botanizing.....South Africa? Japan? or maybe even Patagonia.....or most likely locally in New Hampshire...It surely will be a last minute decision based on time and money.


  1. Anonymous12:55 AM

    Curious... when you botanize, are you actually harvesting plants, or simply collecting seeds, cuttings...? And what kind of plants would you be looking for in NH?


  2. Thanks for the comment Dimitri, this is a very good question, and very important since it brings up a truly critical issue : collecting in the wild.
    First, let me respond by simple saying that I do not collect any plant material in the wild. When I use the word "Botanizing", I mean identification through keying and not through collecting. At this time, I do not even believe in collecting seed in the wild, but I know that others do. Perhaps I may collect soem seed in the future, but at this time, I am still just photoraphing and sketching plants, I don't see a need for collecting wild seed, unless it is of a new species, such as an epimedium in China, or something that has not yet been 'introduced', but I still have not put alot of thought to those practices either. I know many of us grow plants that have previously been collected in the wild, it's hard to avoid that,and a part of my believes that this is a good thing. But another part of me remains skeptical of the impact wee humans have on our planet. A dangerous place to go, I know, morally, since it is just abput impossible to not impact anything when one really starts to think about these issues. (Plane fuel, the plastic and gasses used to create this computer, and the electricity...it all is overwhelming when you really start tho think about it! But, backto your questions...... I do not ever collect in the wild, although I am opem to careful seed collecting that is responsible at best....I do however believe against government laws and support the relocation of endangered or CITES list plants in areas that are to be destroyed, (i.e. freeways in Borneo-type-of-thing) and in New Hampshire, I would be looking for alpine plants in the higher zones of Mount Washington, where there are some Silene acaulis growing.
    Blog on!

  3. Anonymous6:36 PM

    Your blog is great Matt, keep it up. I am heartened by your conservation-mindedness, and that of others. I'm moving back to MA in a year or so and I've got some family land waiting for me to indulge my gardening interests. I'll keep reading here for inspiration.



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