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Gentians Sept 26 08

As Wall Street quakes in the face of an economic crisis, the wetlands of Michigan are awash with the colors of early autumn. Beyond the frenetic energy and furrowed brows of Washington, past the eyes and interest of the anxious media, the marsh asters are the same striking purple as always, the unconcerned goldenrods dust the landscape with yellow, and the hazy blue September sky stretches, glowing, over the fens.

This is the time of year when the gentians reign. Their kingdom is a sunlit world filled with wildflowers, birdsong, katydids, and tranquility, and their royal garments are blue swatches of the heavens.

Eight miles south of where I live in Caledonia lies the Barry State Game Area. It is a region rich in glacial features, checkered with lakes, bogs, prairie remnants, scrub oak savannas, and globally threatened prairie fens. Among the fens, one located a mile southeast of Shaw Lake stands out as the largest and most diverse. Roughly three-quarters of a mile wide and a mile long and surrounded by forest and swamp, it’s a place where you can get turned around, disoriented, and even conceivably swallowed up should you wander carelessly across the unstable turf on the southeast side. Sandhill cranes nest here, and deer hunters set up their blinds on the peripheries of wooded islands.

Come here in September and you’ll see a host of lesser fringed gentians (Gentiana procera) crowding large tracts of lemon-flowered shrubby cinquefoil. The fringed gentians are sun-loving plants, and their striking blue flowers open fully only on bright days.

In the shadier areas near thickets and woods edges, with a sharp eye and a little luck you’ll also find the strange, deep blue blossoms of the closed gentian (G. andrewsii), otherwise known as the bottle gentian. You can often find the two species growing mere feet apart. But the closed gentian seems to prefer less sunny conditions. As interesting in its ethnobotany as it is in its appearance, the plant has been used in Native American medicine to treat everything from sore eyes, to headaches, to snakebite.

I need say little about the sheer beauty of these late-blooming wildflowers. The photos speak more eloquently than any words I can conjure up, and more capable writers than I have already done a far better job than I ever could of capturing the essence of the gentian. In his jewel-like tribute “To the Fringed Gentian,” the poet William Cullen Bryant penned these quaint, moving verses:

Thou blossom bright with autumn dew,
And colored with the heaven’s own blue,
That openest when the quiet light
Succeeds the keen and frosty night…


Then doth thy sweet and quiet eye
Look through its fringes to the sky.
Blue—blue—as if that sky let fall
A flower from its cerulean wall.

In one of his best-known parables, Jesus invited his followers to “see how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.” (Matthew 6:28, 29, NIV)

It’s not difficult to believe that if gentians had been at his disposal, Jesus would have pointed to them. With their quiet, heavenly blue beauty, they are the perfect object lesson of blessing that comes not by hard effort and right of conquest, but by God’s grace.

And this is their season. Now, as our nation stands at the brink of an economic abyss and gnaws its fingernails, the gentians are in bloom.

In these stressful times, may you and I consider what they have to teach us about the beauty of simple faith in a complex world.





Written by Dave.