Plain Gentian is a native erect perennial forb growing 1 to 2-1/2 feet high on smooth stems that are usually not branched, but with multiple stems from the root. Stems may droop considerably in low light conditions.
Leaves are a yellow green in full sun, opposite, stalkless to clasping the stem. Leaves are broadly ovate with a pointed tip and a slightly heart-shaped base at the stem. At the top of the stem just below the terminal inflorescence several leaves form a whorl - the only leaf whorl on the plant.
The inflorescence is terminal cluster of stalkless flowers with axillary clusters sometimes in the upper leaf axils below the leaf whorl.
The flowers have a closed corolla tube 1 1/4 to 2 inches long shaped from five petals that are of various shades depending on ecotype - from greenish-white to white to cream colored. Flowers can also be slightly yellowish but it is usually a creamy white. The corolla lobes have erect tips that remain mostly closed to only partially open. There are irregular folds between the petals. The flower calyx is much shorter than the corolla and has ovate lobes with pointed tips. There are 2 small bracts under the calyx. The reproductive parts include 5 stamens that rise from around the base of the ovary. These have greenish-white filaments and yellow anthers. The ovary has single style with a branched tip. The stamens are held against the ovary (but not united with it) with the anthers surrounding the style. As the ovary enlarges with fertilization it becomes ovate to elliptical, somewhat flattened while the stamens wither away.
Seed: Fertile flowers produce a 2-sectioned seed capsule that splits when mature to release several hundred small flattened brown seeds to the wind. They have no pappus but are light enough (140,000 to the ounce) for wind distribution. Only large bees such as the bumblebee can force open the flower tip for pollination. For germination, seeds require 60 days of cold stratification and light when planted so they should be surface sown.
Habitat: Plain Gentian grows in well drained soils of moist meadows, prairies and open woods with full sun to partial shade. It tolerates wet-mesic to dry-mesic conditions. The root system is rhizomatous and from the rhizomes the plant can reproduce.
Names: The genus Gentiana is named after King Gentius of Illyria who, according to Pliny, discovered that the roots of certain Gentian species have medicinal qualities. There are two accepted species names for this same plant - the discussion centering on which person deserves credit for the classification. The species name alba is Latin for "white." The author names for that plants classification are: ‘Muhl’ is for for Gotthilf Heinrich Ernst Muhlenberg (1753-1815) American Botanist who produced several catalogs of plants after retiring as a Lutheran pastor. His incomplete work was revised and republished by ‘Nutt.’ who is Thomas Nuttall (1786-1859) English botanist who lived and worked in America from 1808 to 1841. On his many expeditions he collected many species that had been originally collected by Lewis and Clark but lost by them.
The alternative species name, flavida, means 'yellowish' and the author name for that classification 'A.Gray' refers to Asa Gray (1810-1888), American botanist, Professor of Natural History at Harvard and instrumental in unifying plant knowledge of North America and author of Gray’s Manual - Manual of the Botany of the Northern United States, from New England to Wisconsin and South to Ohio and Pennsylvania Inclusive. The merits of each claim is beyond our scope here but needless to say, various places have chosen their name - The Garden uses species alba as does USDA and the Minnesota authorities at the U of M Herbarium. The MN DNR however uses species flavida (2019). Both are the same plant.
Comparisons: Plain Gentian is similar in appearance to the blue flowered Closed Gentian, Gentiana andrewsii, except for the flower color.
Above: The inflorescence is both terminal and also from the upper leaf axils. In the 1st photo you can see the pointed lobes of the green calyx beneath the whitish corolla.
Below: 1st photo - The stamens rise from the around the base of the ovary and with their yellow anthers, are held tight against the ovary and style. 2nd photo - When the corolla lips are closed or just partly open it takes a large bee to force them apart to reach in for the nectar.
Below: Leaves are opposite with slight heart-shaped bases that touch or sometimes clasp the smooth stem.
Below: 1st photo - Here we see the stamens surrounding the ovary and style. 2nd photo - As the ovary enlarges the stamens wither away.
Below Fertile flowers produce a 2-sectioned seed capsule that splits when mature to release numerous small flattened brown seeds to the wind. They have no pappus but are light enough for wind distribution.
Below: 1st & 2nd photos - the inflorescence. 3rd photo - The root system is rhizomatous and allows the plant to vegetatively reproduce.
Notes: Plain Gentian is indigenous to the Wirth Park area. Eloise Butler noted finding her first specimen in the Garden on Sept. 11, 1912 near the area she called "Old Andrew's Mount". She planted G. flavida on Aug. 25, 1914 - plants obtained in Eden Prairie, MN, on Aug. 31 1914 with plants from Western Ave (believed to be the one in Golden Valley MN), on 10 Sept. 1917 with plants from Fairview and others in 1918 and 1923. Martha Crone planted it in 1945, '46, '48, '49, '51 and '53.
Plain Gentian is native to Minnesota in a group of counties in the SE quarter of the state, including most of the metro area counties except Dakota. In North America it is found in the central states from Minnesota south to Arkansas, east to Pennsylvania and West Virginia. In Canada it is known it Manitoba and Ontario.
G. flavida/alba is one of five species of Gentiana that the Minnesota DNR reports having known populations. The others are G. affinis, Northern Gentian; G. andrewsii, Closed (or Bottle) Gentian; G. puberulenta, Downy Gentian; and G. rubricaulis, Great Lakes Gentian. The first is on the state special concern list. Billington's Gentian, Gentiana x billingtonii is known only from one small population on a railroad line in Dakota County. Several other species were previously reported but there are none ever collected or the collection is very old.
Medicinal Lore: All known Gentian species have intensely bitter properties in the root. Over the centuries in Europe and Asia this has led to the development of herbal medicines, particularly from the old world species G. lutea. Gentian bitters are prepared from the dried root in use for general debility, weakness of the digestive system and lack of appetite. An alcoholic drink can even be prepared from the roots as once properly prepared and distilled, the distillate contains alcohol. The New World species of gentian have similar properties to the European species. You will find much detail in Mrs. Grieve's Book. (Ref. #7).
References: Plant characteristics are generally from sources 1A, 32, W2, W3, W7 & W8 plus others as specifically applied. Distribution principally from W1, W2 and 28C. Planting history generally from 1, 4 & 4a. Other sources by specific reference. See Reference List for details.
Identification booklet for most of the flowering forbs and small flowering shrubs of the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden. Details Here.
Friends of the Wild Flower Garden, Inc. Text and photos are by G. D. Bebeau unless otherwise credited. "www.friendsofthewildflowergarden.org"