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Snow Gentian

Gentiana nivalis

  • Name also: Small Gentian, Alpine Gentian
  • Family: Gentian Family – Gentianaceae
  • Growing form: Annual herb.
  • Height: 5–20 cm. (2–8 in.). Stem unbranched or branched at base, glabrous.
  • Flower: Corolla wheel-shaped, sky-blue, approx. 15 mm (0.6 in.) long, fused, 5-lobed, with long and narrow tube; throat lacking fringe, small tooth-like appendage between lobes. Calyx 5-lobed. Stamens 5, anthers protected by calyx-tube. Gynoecium composed of 2 fused carpels. Flowers solitary, terminating branches.
  • Leaves: Opposite, stalkless. Basal leaf blades broadly elliptic, with entire margin, parallel-veined, stem leaves narrowly ovate–elliptic.
  • Fruit: 2-parted capsule.
  • Habitat: Fell tundra heaths, meadows, stream banks, shores, village meadows. Calciphile.
  • Flowering time: July–August.
  • Endangerment: Near threatened.

The fell environment doesn’t include many annual plants, and in Finland they can be counted on one hand: trusting the continuation of the genus to seeds alone is a bit of a gamble in the unstable conditions on the fells. Annuals on the fells usually accept their own flowers’ pollen to ensure seed production, at least in times of emergency, but snow gentian might be dependent on cross-pollination. The pollinators’ interest is awoken by the flower, which is a very deep ultramarine blue, and many people think it’s the most beautiful flower on the fells. The best time to find the plant is on a warm, sunny day when the flowers are open. The corolla closes up easily when it is a little overcast, even when there are only a few clouds sailing by on an otherwise sunny day. Without its ornamental flower, small and usually sparse snow gentian easily evades the seeker.

Snow gentian grows quite rarely on the tundra of the large fells of Enontekiö, in Inari beside rivers, and further south in northern Finland, Muonio, Kolari and Alatornio it is a rare alien on roadsides and in village fields. The species has earlier grown in riverside meadows at the mouth of the River Torniojoki, but as pasture and grazing land have become overgrown it has declined sharply. In its natural habitat the species seems to be quite secure: its rarity is mainly due to the scarcity of places with calciferous rock in Finland – barren bedrock fells are unsuitable for snow gentian.

The name gentian comes from Gentius, the ruler of the kingdom of Illyria in the western Balkan Peninsula, who was said to have come up with the idea of using gentians medicinally. Snow gentian is the only true member of genus Gentiana that grows wild in Finland. Its close relatives that grow in Finland have nowadays been moved into their own genus Gentianella. These six species are rare and endangered, and the only species that grows on the fells is violet-flowered (Gentianella tenella), which is protected.

Other species from the same family

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