Deb Babcock's gardening column appears Thursdays in Steamboat Today.
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Hikers and bikers traveling Routt County's trails and roadways this summer are commenting on the proliferation of green gentian (Frasera speciosa), also called Monument Plant or Deer's Ears. It's the largest gentian found in the Rocky Mountains and can be found in meadows and open areas.
Green gentian first was discovered and collected in the Spokane, Wash., area in the 1830s by scientist David Douglas (whom the Douglas Fir is named after). The genus name “Frasera” was given to this plant in honor of John Fraser, a famous botanist who studied and collected plants for such notables as the Empress of Russia and England's Royal Botanic Kew Gardens. The second half of the name “speciosa” means showy.
The stalk can get as tall as 8 feet and is covered with greenish star-shaped flowers with light purple speckles that are 1 to 2 inches across. The leaves on this plant are shaped like the ears of a deer, hence the common name Deer's Ears and are large at the bottom and get smaller as they go up the stalk. Each plant can produce about 600 flowers, and each flower can produce 60 seeds.
Until recently, botanists thought this plant was a biennial, meaning it would produce a basal leaf and a small stalk the first year and then flower the second year. But decades of research by Dr. David Inouye, of the Rocky Mountain Biologic Laboratory in Gothic, has shown that this plant actually only flowers one time in its lifetime, which can be between 20 and 80 years. Then it dies.
This makes the green gentian a monocarpic plant, similar to the Century Plant (Agave) so well known in the southwest U.S.
The phenomenon of the huge flowering of this plant this year is something that Dr. Inouye has observed in other parts of the state. In the East River Valley near Crested Butte, thousands of green gentian all bloomed at once in 2003, 2005 and then again in 2010. He estimated 12,000 to 15,000 plants all in bloom at the same time.
His hypothesis is that conditions such as we experienced this year in Routt County — a wet July and dry August — triggers the flowering of these plants, many of which are at microscopic size for the first years of their lives. And the trigger for these plants usually happens two to four years before the synchronized mass flowering event, so we should look at weather in 2009 to 2011 for a similar pattern that led to this year's mass bloom.
It's a little tricky to tell the age of a green gentian plant, but Dr. Inouye's research has discovered that the number of leaves you count in the basal leaf area roughly corresponds to the age of the plant. However,this isn't always true as some plants lose leaves during the aging process and others will generate extra leaves if conditions are right.
The reproduction system of this plant is a sweet and unusual one. When seeds are formed, they fall to the ground and since the plant dies after its one flowering, the mother plant falls to the ground and covers the seeds, thus providing protection, moisture retention and nutrition to the seeds and seedlings as the mother plant decomposes. Seeds that grow up among the dead leaves of the mother plant are twice as likely to survive as those planted into the open. It makes this plant a rare example in the plant kingdom of a mother nurturing its young.
Green gentian looks similar to the noxious plant, Mullein. You can tell the two apart by looking at the leaves. Mullein has soft, fuzzy leaves and yellow flowers while the desirable gentian's leaves are smooth and the flower is a light green. It's a source of food for wildlife.
Keep an eye out for monumental display of flowering green gentian as you travel across Routt County this fall.
Deb Babcock is a Master Gardener through the CSU Extension Routt County. Call 970-879-0825 or email firstname.lastname@example.org with questions.