Curious Nature: Once in a lifetime plant
Vail, CO Colorado
With summer winding down in the valley, we often reminisce of the monumental events of the past season. Hiking our first fourteener, seeing a black bear in our backyard, watching the meteor showers from the top of a mountain. Though these events will always remind us of the summer of 2012, they do not represent the last moments of the season. Before the cold sets in, I encourage you to get out, hike around the area and keep your eyes peeled for the green gentian (frasera speciosa), commonly known as the monument plant.
What makes this gentian so “monumental,” you might ask? What you are looking at is 20 to 80 years in the making. Yes, a plant that has been growing in that exact spot for longer than you may have been alive.
This is an example of a monocarpic perennial, when a plant grows for many years, flowers once, and then dies. Consider yourself lucky if you get to see the flowering of this individual plant because it is the only time it will do so.
Common in mountain meadows, the green gentian spends the early decades of its life as a cluster of long, narrow basal leaves. This gives the plant its alternate names of elkweed and deer’s ears. It produces one stalk, up to 5 feet tall, with around 600 flowers growing denser from the bottom up. Six hundred flowers, each with about 60 seeds. No wonder this plant gathers energy for so long in order to bloom! Its flowers are star-like and quite symmetrical, but only measure 1 to 11⁄2 inches in diameter each. Like its name implies, the petals are a yellow-green, causing the flowers to be nondescript until you see them up close. A closer look reveals purple spots, making them all the more a sight to see.
With a new idea of what the flower looks like, imagine you are taking an end-of-the season hike and come across an entire field full of this immense plant. That is the trend with the green gentian.
It tends to flower in a synchronized, picturesque pattern of hundreds to thousands at a time.
One year may consist of never-ending, thick, stalky growths, while the next year the stalks may be scarce all together. And as much as seeing an entire field of flowers as tall as you would be a monumental moment to end your summer, it is not the most shocking fact about this plant. What determines the sprout of the stock and bloom of the flowers happened four years ago!
The environmental cue that says “hey plant, get to work” is actually the amount of precipitation in July and August four years before the bloom.
This begs the question of, with the current climate conditions and therefore lack of precipitation, will we see any monumental green gentians four years from now? Mother Nature is telling us that it might be a while before we see these beautiful flowers again.
Janelle DeSanto is a summer naturalist at Walking Mountains Science Center, open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Join them on a free guided nature hike, offered daily at 2 p.m. and explore what the valley has to offer.