Search for an Elusive Fall Plant

Anyone can be a naturalist. Below, Ernie Schuyler, curator emeritus for Botany, suggests you spend some time this fall searching for a rare, beautiful plant called Pine Barren Gentian, or Gentiana autumnalis.

Pine Barren Gentian
The Yellow-rumped Fly-catcher, and The Gentian of the Desert by William Bartram with additions by George Edwards from Gleanings of Natural History (1758-64).

Recognized by its five-petal, deep-blue or blue-purple flowers covered in pale green dots, Pine Barren Gentian grows up to one-half meter tall. Its flowers grow on a single stem with several narrow leaves.

Though Pine Barren Gentian is most likely to bloom during September and October, you’ll have to look hard to find it. The conservation status of this brilliant blue-flowered plant is considered “vulnerable,” and with a few exceptions, it grows only in the New Jersey Pine Barrens and the North Carolina Pine Woods.

Why is this plant so rare, and why is it concentrated in the Pine Barrens? The Pine Barren Gentian tends to prosper in areas that have been affected by fire or in disturbed sandy forest openings and roadsides, says Schuyler. The New Jersey Pine Barrens are a frequent site of lightning-induced forest fires, which Schuyler explains are a normal part of the Pine Barren ecosystem.

Because of fire-suppression efforts and human development, the chances to spot the plant are rare. The damp, sandy soil of the Pine Barren provides the best environment for Pine Barren Gentian to prosper.

For help finding this unique plant, Schuyler recommends paying a visit to the Philadelphia Botanical Club. If you’re in the Pine Barrens, “look for open, disturbed roadside areas where the sand is damp,” he explains.

If you’re lucky enough to find Pine Barren Gentian, take lots of photographs—but be sure to leave this rare plant in its natural habitat.

You can see botanical specimens and learn more about botany at our Annual Members’ Night on October 13, 2017. Join us for an exciting behind-the-scenes peak at our research, collections, and scientists. Become a member today or register here.

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