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One of the most beautiful of the gentians, with its delicately fringed petals and striking blue color, it is becoming rare and must not be picked. It is a biennial, and along with the other gentians, is among the last wildflowers to bloom in the late summer and fall. The Smaller Fringed Gentian (G. virgata) is similar but has narrow leaves, a shorter fringe, and is only 6-18 inches (15-45 cm) high. It occurs in midwestern, boggy prairies and limy areas. Both the common and generic names of this group come from that of King Gentius of Illyria, who, according to the Ancient Roman naturalist Pliny, discovered the medicinal qualities of the roots for use as an emetic, cathartic, and tonic. Range & Habitat: Fringed Gentian is a rare native wildflower that is found in NE Illinois, while in the rest of the state it is absent (see Distribution Map). While populations have declined from habitat destruction, Fringed Gentian is not yet listed as 'endangered' or 'threatened' within the state. Habitats include wet to moist sand prairies, sandy pannes near Lake Michigan, edges of sandy sloughs and sandy swales, fens, open wooded swamps, wooded ravines, roadside ditches, and open damp areas along sandy trails. Fringed Gentian is usually associated with high quality wetlands where the original flora is still intact, although it has a tendency to colonize open disturbed areas both in and around these habitats.
For centuries, poets and artists have considered the Fringed Gentian's rich beauty which has inspired such writers as William Cullen Bryant, Emily Dickinson, and Henry David Thoreau. Infrequent throughout much of its native range, its populations are generally in small and scattered groups that depend on adequate seed production to persist from year to year. The confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers produced many herbarium specimens before the developing metropolitan area and introductions of non-native species extirpated them. I have heard accounts of dense populations that have taken to colonizing tailings basins on the Iron Range. Very similar species is Lesser Fringed Gentian (Gentianopsis procera), which is a smaller plant overall with shorter fringes on the flowers, less spreading petal lobes, and smaller, more linear leaves. At one time taxonomists recognized more than 325 species in the genus Gentiana, ranging across the Northern Hemisphere and the Andes of South America. Most gentians have blue to purple flowers with four or five petals fused at the base into a tube. Often the area between the corolla lobes is pleated, or the lobes are variously fringed on their margins or at their base within the floral tube. Due to this variability, the genus has been split into three main groups, usually recognized as separate genera. The group of approximately 25 north temperate species with four fringed petals and lacking pleats are now placed in the genus Gentianopsis (literally translated as “Gentiana-like”) and called the fringed gentians. These species can also be recognized by their seeds that are covered by scale-like papillae (best seen under high magnification). (Source: www.fs.fed.us)