In fall, we usually find browns, reds, oranges, and yellows in the landscape. It is nice to find a plant for fall flowering that is actually purple or blue rather than the traditional hues common to September and October. The Prairie Gentian is one of those.
Prairie Gentian, Gentiana puberulenta, may be called Downy Gentian. This perennial plant grows 1 to1 ½ feet tall. The leaves are smooth, pointed, and opposite, about 2 inches long and about 1 inch wide. The flowers are about 1½ inches across and are held in a cluster at the top of the plant. The tube-shaped flowers are typically purple or blue with 5 petals each. These flowers are found in the late summer to fall or August through October. This plant is usually one of the later flowering plants in a prairie setting and will usually withstand some of the earlier hard frosts in that area.
Prairie Gentian, as the name implies, is most commonly found throughout prairies and other dry locations. This plant does best in very dry soils. In fact, according to Michigan State University Extension, "this species likely requires natural disturbances associated with prairie habitat such as prescribed fire or brush removal to prevent woody plant succession." Because this plant prefers disturbed areas and since we have led our management practices to do less burning as it is a hazard to structures, people, and wildlife, Prairie Gentian is listed as a 'Threatened' or 'Endangered' plant in Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee. It can be found for purchase through seed catalogs or online by searching "purchasing Downy Gentian."
Not only is Prairie Gentian a blue flower in the fall amongst all of the other browns, yellows, and oranges, but it is also a good pollinator plant. This benefits bee colonies that need to build their pollen resources in preparation for winter. The Gentian Research Network with Rutgers University has said that the roots and leaves of some species of Gentian, mainly Yellow Gentian, can be used for digestive health, snakebites and other poison antidote, wound washing, improvement of appetite, and intestinal worms. This is not the case with the Prairie Gentian that we may find in our Nebraska landscapes.
Prairie Gentian is a wonderful perennial plant for prairies and neglected sites. It adds a splash of blue or purple to an otherwise fall colored environment. It is endangered and threatened in some areas of the U.S. so we should do what we can to help it flourish in Nebraska. Are you looking for a new plant to add more color to your prairie? Consider the Prairie or Downy Gentian.