Saturday, October 06, 2007


Fringed Gentians, Phenology, and Bees

William Cullen Bryant, To the Fringed Gentian:
Thou blossom bright with autumn dew,
And coloured with the heaven's own blue,
That openest when the quiet light
Succeeds the keen and frosty night.

Thou comest not when violets lean
O'er wandering brooks and springs unseen,
Or columbines, in purple dressed,
Nod o'er the ground-bird's hidden nest.

Thou waitest late and com'st alone,
When woods are bare and birds are flown,
And frosts and shortening days portend
The aged year is near his end.

Then doth thy sweet and quiet eye
Look through its fringes to the sky,
Blue—blue—as if that sky let fall
A flower from its cerulean wall.

I would that thus, when I shall see
The hour of death draw near to me,
Hope, blossoming within my heart,
May look to heaven as I depart.
John Burroughs, Nature and the Poets, finds fault with the accuracy of Bryant's third stanza:
The fringed gentian belongs to September, and, when the severer frosts keep away, it runs over into October. But it does not come alone, and the woods are not bare. The closed gentian comes at the same time, and the blue and purple asters are in all their glory. Goldenrod, turtle-head, and other fall flowers also abound. When the woods are bare, which does not occur in New England till in or near November, the fringed gentian has long been dead. It is in fact killed by the first considerable frost. No, if one were to go botanizing, and take Bryant's poem for a guide, he would not bring home any fringed gentians with him. The only flower he would find would be the witch-hazel. Yet I never see this gentian without thinking of Bryant's poem, and feeling that he has brought it immensely nearer to us.
Fringed gentian. Photograph by Robert H. Mohlenbrock. USDA SCS. 1989. Midwest wetland flora: Field office illustrated guide to plant species. Midwest National Technical Center, Lincoln, NE. Courtesy of USDA NRCS Wetland Science Institute.

Phenology is "the study of the times of recurring natural phenomena," and Burrough's quarrel with Bryant is over a phenological detail. Aldo Leopold called Henry David Thoreau the "father of phenology" in America, and any reader of Thoreau's Journal knows with what painstaking detail he recorded the times of recurring natural phenomena. A recurrent phrase in his Journal is "How long?" When Thoreau observes, say, a species of flower in bloom, he wonders if he has truly noted its first appearance, or whether it has in fact been in bloom for some time already.

Here are the dates when Thoreau records in his Journal that he saw fringed gentians — October 19, 1852; September 18, 1854; September 14, 1856; September 18, 1856; September 13, 1858; October 1, 1858; and October 10, 1858.

On November 14, 1853 Thoreau states that the fringed gentian had "long since withered," but on December 1, 1856 he records "Minot Pratt tells me that he watched the fringed gentian this year, and it lasted till the first week in November."

In his essay An Idyl of the Honey-Bee, John Burroughs implies that fringed gentians do not attract bees:
Beside a ditch in a field beyond we find the great blue lobelia (Lobelia syphilitica), and near it amid the weeds and wild grasses and purple asters the most beautiful of our fall flowers, the fringed gentian. What a rare and delicate, almost aristocratic look the gentian has amid its coarse, unkempt surroundings. It does not lure the bee, but it lures and holds every passing human eye.
But Thoreau (Journal, October 18, 1852) wrote the following about fringed gentians and bees:
At this hour [5 p.m.] the blossoms are tightly rolled and twisted, and I see that the bees have gnawed round holes in their sides to come at the nectar. They have found them, though I had not. "Full many a flower is born to blush unseen" by man.

Who cares when the fringed gentian blooms, and whether it attracts bees or not? It is probably a shocking heresy to say so, but such questions inspire in me a far deeper and more enduring curiosity and sympathy than current events and controversies that fill the newspaper headlines.

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