Sasha's gentians from the November 2005 PVC Bulletin, the bulletin of the Potomac Valley Chapter of the North American Rock Garden Society. Sasha's gentians are at the bottom of the page.
Who says you can't grow gentians?
Decades ago I stumbled on a copy of Doretta Klaber's Gentians for your garden in a used book store. Two things about the book immediately made a good impression: it was based on experience gained in Pennsylvania, and it was full of practical advice. It was probably the chapter How to Grow Gentians which really caught my eye: there were drawings of cold frames, seedlings, nursery beds and a cold frame corner. The advice was down to earth, and for once the text was not the raving of some arm-chair gardener hired to write text to accompany tarted-up photography. Gentians belong to that ill-defined group of garden plants - lilies are another - for which the good news always seems to be accompanied sooner or later by bad news. Yes, they're beautiful, but aren't they impossible to grow? That is to say, aren't the really worthwhile ones impossible to grow? I'm not sure gentian growers are always much help here: it does seem that some are all too willing to drop the name of some ineffably beautiful one which is of course so much more desirable than the one you happen to be growing.
Many of us, maybe most of us in this part of the world, have never even seen, except in books, the gentians which take the breath of even the most jaded growers. But maybe that is an advantage: not having seen the exalted ones, perhaps it is easier to truly appreciate the very good ones we do have. And we do have some very good gentians which, as it turns out, are not difficult to grow. Gentiana septemfida is so easy that it briefly made it into the mass distribution nursery trade. While visiting Alice Nicolson earlier this year, she showed me a handsome summer blooming gentian for which no apologies were necessary (see the image of Gentiana gracilipes above). Many of us grow the various bottle gentians, and I for one think they are greatly undervalued. In my bog trays Gentiana makinoi has also flourished. And in the recent past, the Boones brought nice plants of Gentiana scabra to the exchanges.
Gentiana scabra: I've known about this plant for decades, yet the beginning of my real understanding of this plant is much more recent. Most books simply don't do this plant justice, but Doretta Klaber went so far as to say " you look at it [Gentiana scabra saxatilis] with the feeling that nothing, not even the Himalayans, could be lovelier." It's not only lovely, it's easy. And I don't mean comparatively easy, I mean easy. It's not fussy about soil, and it's easy (easy, not fast) from fresh seed. My current plants derive from seedlings from one of the plants the Boones brought to the exchange years ago. The seed was scattered in one of the bog trays, and two years later there were flowers. That's easy.
Earlier this year many of us visited Sasha's garden and saw the last of the spring gentians in bloom. Sasha mentioned that there were plenty of fall gentians, too. When my Gentiana scabra began to bloom, I was reminded of Sasha's plants. But by then the rains had started, and gentians close up during cold, wet weather. I contacted Sasha to set up a date, and luckily the sun cooperated. I wasn't ready for what I saw in Sasha's garden. The Gentiana scabra were scattered throughout the garden. Some were even growing out of the paths. Some were tall ( up to about two feet tall), some were only a few inches high. Some were bolt upright, some trailed along the ground. Some were that wonderful blue which we call gentian blue, some had a bit more purple or violet in the color, some were pale sky blue and one was even white. Some had broad leaves, some narrow. Some had profuse bloom lined up along the length of the stem, some had clusters of bloom at the tips of the stems. It was this delightful variation which caught me by surprise: this was all so much richer than the books had led me to expect.
So there you have it: there is a gentian for our gardens which can provide the breathtaking excitement of the great ones. And it's not a difficult plant to grow. Take a look at the accompanying images of the gentians in Sasha's garden and then give yourself the affirmative answer to the question "Why not in mine, too?".
Sasha's Gentina scabra
Photographed October 27, 2005
Click on the images to see the enlarged version
Gentiana scabra photos by Jim McKenney