monument plants proliferate across Colorado
|A field of green gentians,
aka monument plants, catch the early morning sun
north of Coal Bank Pass on Monday. For some inexplicable
reason, the plants, which can grow as old as 80
years, bloom once and then die, are blooming profusely
across the state./Photo by Todd Newcomer.
It’s truly a phenomenon. I tell this to the new
batch of apprentices who have signed on to learn about
herbalism this summer. My boss, flitting around the
Rockies for two weeks, has left me in charge of the
knowledge-hungry girls who are promised a weekly class
in exchange for the hard work they give to the herb
I’ve lived here for nine summers and haven’t
ever seen this before.”
I am referring to the prolific green gentian bloom,
the flush of cream-colored wands rising out of mountain
slopes across Colorado in the tens of thousands. Green
gentian, also known as the monument plant (Latin name:
Frasera speciosa, Frasera for botanist John Fraser
and speciosa meaning showy) is fairly common from 8,000
to 11,000 feet, though most summers you are lucky to
see a handful in bloom. The large, oval-shaped, shiny
green leaves grow all the way up the flower stalk,
with clusters of white and green flowers poking out.
The plant towers over mountain meadows, growing to
a height of 5 to 6 feet.
We were supposed to be doing something useful that
Wednesday night in the time slotted for herb class,
like gathering much-needed plants for the shop while
the short-lived summer was so generous. But all I could
think about was getting back to Coal Bank Pass, over
which I had sped July 4 en route to Silverton, eyes
bugged, where the green gentian rose from the hillside
like giant luminarias. There were hundreds of them.
No one knows why they have these banner years, where
instead of three blooming across a couple acres, there
are 300 blooming,” I told the apprentices as
we drove up Highway 550, east-facing slopes just beginning
to hurl their shadows across the road. “The green
gentians are monocarpic, meaning they bloom once and
then die.” I pause, taking quick inventory of
interest levels, and seeing that the apprentices are
with me, I give them this: “The average age of
a flowering plant seems to be about 35-40 years, though
at high altitudes they may wait until they are 75-80
years old to bloom. And then they die.”
We discuss the strategies of such an extreme life.
Spending decades building up strength and energy in
the roots allows for the one-time flowering to be spectacular,
the green gentian literally giving its flower everything
it’s got. And flowering, of course, is the biological
purpose of a plant; ensuring that the parent genes,
through seeds, will endure another generation.
There’s some!” I call out, pointing to
the swaths of meadow laid out like a doormat at the
feet of aspen stands south of Purgatory. Our first
green gentian sighting buoys us for the rest of what
seems like a long drive for the end of a full workday.
As we rise in elevation, the cool air blows in the
truck windows and settles around my neck and bare shoulders,
the first respite from the mid-90 degree heat of town.
We arrive at Coal Bank Pass, sun sinking behind the
double hump of Engineer Mountain, leaving its last
light in the tops of the tallest Engelmann spruce.
The slope below Engineer, usually covered by ski tracks
in the winter, is lousy with green gentian. Like the
tall, straight saguaro cactus that dominates Sonoran
desert hillsides, the gentians are conspicuous rods
of white against the green backdrop. I can’t
stop exclaiming over the sheer numbers. The apprentices,
becoming acquainted with green gentians for the first
time, are duly impressed.
We stop in front of a mammoth plant, where a bumblebee
squirms inside a flower, its bottom pulsating in the
ecstasy of imbibing nectar. The four-petal flower beckons
pollinators with its extravagant purple spots, known
as nectar guides; the payoff is under two fringes of
hairs that may serve to cool the nectar, keeping it
from crystallizing. The leaves are found at intervals
of 2 to 6 inches up the flower stalk, and at each leaf
axil (where the leaf joins the stem), a cluster of
flowers emerges. A 6-foot plant may produce as many
as 1,400 flowers. Some shoot out horizontally, putting
themselves in the path of sun, bees and other pollinating
insects; others hang crowded against the 1 to 2-inch
We count, on this particular plant, six leaf axils
whorled around the stalk with 10 to 15 flowers per
cluster, creating approximately 78 flowers every 4
inches. “It’s like a botanical high rise,” Holly,
one of the apprentices, comments.
We walk along the trail, green gentians above and below
us, in front of us and behind us. We try and see if
we can find any that are not blooming as we discuss
It’s like some sort of collective consciousness,” one
of the apprentices says. “Maybe it’s the
drought creating urgency.”
The other mentions, “Maybe it’s something
in the moon.”
We agree that it’s good to have some mystery.
I point out other plants as we walk, explaining how
they are gathered, processed and used for medicine.
I am surprised at how interested the apprentices are
in learning the local plants, asking me to quiz them
on the plants we’ve already seen. I tell them
repetition is the key, and they take this to heart.
We are finally driven out by mosquitoes, nightfall
and the girls’ respective rendezvous’ with
boyfriends back in town.
A few days later, I am lucky to connect with botanist
David Inouye, who spends his summers at Rocky Mountain
Biological Laboratory near Crested Butte. For the past
30 years, Inouye has been studying Frasera speciosa.
He believes that when the plants get to a certain age,
anywhere between 20 and 80 years, they are ripe for
an environmental cue that signals them to bloom. Inouye
created this hypothesis somewhat by accident. He was
watering a plot of about 100 wild green gentians for
much of a summer, hoping that the increased water would
spark a riot of blooming. It didn’t. He continued
to water that plot the following year, again with no
appreciable results. By the third summer he threw in
the towel and left the plot alone, and the gentians
flowered significantly more than in other areas across
the mountains. He also discovered during those two
summers of intense watering, that the plants pre-form
leaves and flowers two years in advance. These observations
led him to believe that the gentians that flowered
in his plot had received an environmental cue two years
prior to blooming, prompting their floral display.
Inouye believes the cue is summer precipitation, rather
than drought, though he’s not sure if it’s
the amount of rain throughout the summer, or density
of rain during a certain month, or another formula
If his hypothesis is correct, then the green gentians
flowering this year were kicked into gear by rainfall
during the summer of 2001. I checked my garden journal
for notable events of 2001. This is what I found: 7/1/01
First rain of the season! Nice and heavy; 7/20/01 Seems
to be raining hard about once a week since July 1st;
8/1/01 RAIN! Monsoon season has begun; big, fat, loud
torrential thunderstorms! 8/16/01 Rained every day
for three weeks straight now. Apparently the summer
of 2001 was quite wet after all.
Inouye explains the potential benefits of the banner
bloom years, even if they only occur every two to eight
years. This mass blooming can actually thwart the actions
of predators. Inouye says caterpillars may be the green
gentian’s biggest predator, as well as a fly
that only lays eggs on flowering green gentian stalks.
The fly and caterpillar may produce a large number
of offspring the year of the green gentian flowering
because of large food supplies, but the following year,
when the numbers of flowering plants dwindle, the boom-year
offspring are left high and dry, and many will die.
Pollinators, however, of which there are many for the
green gentian, have a virtual all-you-can-sip nectar
bar, without having to travel much during this monthlong
bloom. Bumblebee populations are down because of drought,
though hopefully the local explosion of miller moths
will take up the slack.
Inouye says that currently, in the East River Valley,
from Mount Crested Butte to Schofield Pass (approximately
10 miles), there are about 18,000 flowering green gentians.
The progeny of the largest flowering population will
probably not survive because of the proposed development
of Crested Butte’s “North Village.”
Enjoy them while you can,” Inouye says of his
beloved plants. He also notes that most of our mountain
perennials are very long lived, and every time we bulldoze
for development, not only do we encourage non-native
plants to colonize the disturbed ground, but for those
seeds that do survive to germinate, it may be many
years, decades even, before they bloom again.
Inouye tells me that the green gentians had banner
years in 1971, 1973, 1977, 1980, 1988, 1990 and 1996.
I am surprised to hear that the green gentians had
a big bloom in 1996. I was here, how could I have missed
it? Then I remember that it was just my second summer
in the area, I hadn’t yet been here long enough
to see patterns in the mountains. Now I see there is
yet another kind of extreme lifestyle: staying in a
place long enough to forge membership in the communities
of both humans and wild ones; learning the subtleties