Depending on when you visit a prairie, you’ll see one of two seasonal sentinels that bookend the year — Pasqueflowers in the spring or Downy Gentians in the fall.
Although they’re not related, Pasqueflowers and Downy Gentians share a few characteristics. Both herald the seasons in which they grow. They are close in size, and their blooms have a similar appearance. Both tolerate frost and adapt to wide variances in temperature. Although their similarities are purely coincidental, comparing the two species side by side, as you can do in these photos, can be fun.
Finding Downy Gentians among their towering neighbors, such as Big Bluestem grasses, can be difficult, however. Even in the face of this summer’s low rainfall, Big Bluestem grasses reached heights over six feet. Be sure to visit the Prairie, despite the drought, because you’ll still see just how lush our prairie can be.
Looking carefully among these giant grasses, you may be rewarded by the sight of downright gorgeous 8-inch high Downy Gentians — gentiana puberula — showing off stunning blue blooms. These hardy flowers can survive frost, so you might even glimpse a bit of blue in October. Their seeds remind me of ground pepper. To germinate, Downy Gentian seeds must lie uncovered on the ground, which means the species is not abundant. In addition, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to grow this wildflower in an urban garden (believe me, I’ve tried, without success).