Species of the Week
Number 20 --
October 23, 2006

In the Species of the Week feature of the Wildwood Web we took a close look at one of the species that lives in Wildwood.  To see the earlier featured species check the Species of the Week archives.


Stiff Gentian

Gentianella quinquefolia

By late fall it seems that nothing is blooming in the park but asters and late goldenrods.  However, there are a few other kinds of flowers in bloom.  Among them is the stiff gentian, also known as gall-of-the-earth and agueweed.  Stiff gentian is recognizable by its violet, or sometimes white, flowers, about a half to an inch long, in crowded clusters.  The five petals of the flowers have fused together to form long funnels, with five triangular teeth at the top.  In bud, the five teeth come together in a peak to form missile shapes.  The deep green leaves with strongly marked veins come in pairs.  They are stalkless, gripping the stems at their bases.

Stiff gentian is in the Gentianaceae or Gentian Family.  There are about 70 genera in this family and about 800 species.  Many have beautiful flowers, but few are cultivated.  In Wildwood we also have bitterbloom, Sabatia angularis, in this family.  About half the members of this family are gentians.  These used to all be in the genus Gentiana, but that genus has been broken up into several smaller genera.  There are about 400 species of gentians in the world, mostly in the northern temperate and arctic areas, but also in the Andes.  A few live in Australia. 

The name Gentiana is in honor of King Gentius of Illyria (or Illyricum) who is said to have discovered the medicinal value of the European yellow gentian (Gentiana lutea) more than 2000 years ago.   The genus name Gentianella is a diminutive of Gentiana, thus "a little gentian."  The species name quinquefolia means "five-leaved."  How stiff gentian got that name is a mystery to me, unless "leaf" is figurative and refers to the petal tips.  This is plausible since many gentians have four petals.

The drug gentian is made from the dried roots of the yellow gentian, Gentiana lutea, a plant of the mountain meadows and pastures of Europe.  Gentian root has been used to treat fevers, stomach aches, and heartburn, and an infusion has been used to wash wounds.  As a tonic it is claimed to improve appetite and digestion.  Many American gentians, including stiff gentian were used medicinally by American Indians and early settlers.  It is reported that American Indians used gentians to relieve backaches.  Ague refers to fevers that recur, and presumably the name agueweed refers to its medicinal use.

Stiff gentian likes rich woods and moist prairies from southwest Maine and Ontario, south to northern Florida, and west to Minnesota, Ohio, Kentucky, Missouri, and Louisiana.  In Wildwood I have seen it in the woods west of Wildwood Drive near the southern bridge on the bikeway.  Currently there is a beautiful, many-branched specimen in full bloom near the base of the Grand Staircase, where it is kept company by many blue and white asters.


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