Pine Barren Gentian, Gentiana autumnalis

This article was written in celebration of the 2021 Plant of the Year in the category of 'Special & Rare Plants of NJ'.
By Bobbie Herbs, NPSNJ Historian

Pine Barren Gentian

Pine barren gentian contrasts with the expected colors of fall, blooming from September to early November in New Jersey. The blue flowers aid insects in finding nectar sources when foliage turns golden, red and orange. These are rare plants, yet can still be found in the wetlands of New Jersey's Pinelands. Adapted to acidic, sandy, nutrient-poor soil in fire-prone areas, Pine barren gentian communities have been heavily diminished by fire suppression, off road vehicles, invasive plants and shifting natural water systems due to civilization and development. The plant is protected as threatened or endangered by the Pinelands Comprehensive Management Plan and is listed as a Species of Special Concern by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. As a globally rare species the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection has pine barren gentian prioritized for recovery.

Wild fires help maintain the early succession environment pine barren gentian prefer, where soil is disturbed, canopies cleared, and fire ash provides nutrients. Plant colonies are found primarily in open, sunny, wet pine barrens and bogs on the coastal plains of New Jersey, Virginia plus North and South Carolina. Scientists are studying the use of prescribed burns and clearing to evaluate the conservation impact on this rare plant. These are difficult plants to propagate due to the precise soil, water and nutrient composition required for seed germination.

Flowers are trumpet shaped in communities of eye-catching azure blue. From 1-3 flowers arise from each stem. Each flower has a 5 (occasionally 4 ) lobed calyx (sepals) that is no longer than 1" and narrow. The 5 (occasionally 4 ) flower petals fuse at the base and separate from the middle of the flower to the top forming the trumpet. Flower petals of pine barren gentian open up to be 1 7/8" to 2" wide according to 'The New Britton And Brown Illustrated Flora' by H.A. Gleason, Hafner Pub. Co. 1963; 'Newcomb's Wildflower Guide' L. Newcomb, Little, Brown & Co. 1977.

Their flower show is a bit stingy, flowers open from late morning to early afternoon only in full sun. Colors range from purple to blue with whitish-green strips or spots in the throat, these serve as 'nectar guides' to direct insects. CU Maurice River notes, on very rare occasion this plant may be found with white corolla or white in green (f. albescens) or white and blue (f. albocaerulea) or purple or lilac (f. porphyrio).

Leaves and Plant
The pine barren gentian can achieve 24" in height, but typically reaches one foot tall. Leaves have no hairs and are arranged opposite with 7-15 pairs per stem. Each leaf is 1-3" long and about a 1/8" across, elongated, linear with an entire margin.

Odds and Ends
Pine barren gentian was not properly named until 1971 using an example from South Carolina. Originally discovered by William Bartram, he sent a drawing to George Edwards, a British naturalist and ornithologist, who published "Autumnal Perennial Gentian of the Desert" in his Gleanings of Natural History, 1758.

Photos by Hubert & Millie Ling, September 24, 2017 during a field trip led by Ryan Rebozo at the U.S. Air Force Warren Grove Gunnery Range




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