Vail Daily column: Monumental advice from an unusual plant

Whenever I am tromping around the valley, I like to keep my eyes peeled for new wildflowers and old favorites alike to continue growing my mental garden. However, there is one plant that no matter how many times I see, leaves a sense of awe and lasting impression — Frasera specios, also known as the monument plant or the green gentian. This spectacular species has an unusual life pattern and is a wonderful representative of curious nature.

Brewing in a nonchalant basal rosette for season after season, the green gentian goes unnoticed for up to 80 years. The attention is instead placed on our wildflowers that sprout and shine their colors annually, luring pollinators and camera lenses alike. The gentian is humble, despite living out a life being trampled by hiking boots and bike tires without even a sigh of recognition.

The monument plant is monocarpic, meaning that it blooms once then dies immediately after the effort. In the final year of the gentle giants’ life, it skyrockets to 4, 5, 6 or even 7 feet tall. Their stalks, tessellated in white flowers tinged in a shade of green and specked with purple spots, provide a layered home for helpful, buzzing pollinators. After blowing its entire life savings, the megabloom can have more than 600 flowers on one stalk, each carrying 60 seeds. The individual flowers have four petals, creating a one-by-one square. Some years we see more green gentians going for it than others, which has perplexed scientists for years.

This seemingly random decision to bloom and show the earth what all of its life’s energy can create actually follows a traceable pattern. The gentians’ last hurrah is dependent on the precipitation it receives four years prior. Therefore, the plants we see in bloom this season are in response to a solid season’s worth of precipitation in 2009. They are like living memories, reminding us both of the rough droughts and the summers when the rivers were raging.

Next time you are out and about in your favorite montane meadow, make sure to look for the green giant and maybe spend a few more moments then you usually would in its presence. Because there is a strong chance that the plant has lived more life than you have, I am sure it has some wise lessons to pass along. Walking under that huge stalk may change your perception of scale to leave you with a feeling of slight insignificance. Crazy how the tables switch! If you listen a bit harder, delve a bit deeper, and try to become more seamlessly connected with our land, then you will discover that nature — including the green gentian — is immensely more complex and worthy of attention and excitement than would ever be imagined.

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Kaitlyn O’Sullivan works as a summer naturalist at Walking Mountains Science Center. She is a senior at the University of Denver but a townie at heart. She gets stoked on flowers, foraging and tromping around outside with friends.

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