Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center
Clumps of the gorgeous northern gentian usually bloom during August on the North Dakota prairies. The plant is mostly restricted to the northern half of our state; however, a few specimens have been collected in low meadows in the south-central counties. Overall, the plant has a disjunct distribution. It occurs in the cool northern prairies, then disappears toward the arid west only to reappear in cool mountain grasslands that stretch from British Columbia to California and Colorado, where it is sometimes called "Rocky Mountain pleated gentian."
Northern gentian usually is found in clumps of a dozen or more smooth stems up to 16 inches tall from cord-like perennial roots. From 5 to 10 beautiful blue flowers about an inch long form in clusters at the tips of the stems. The sides of the flowers are folded or pleated. Seven to 13 pairs of clasping leaves are spaced quite regularly along the stem. Fruit is a 2-valved capsule.
Most gentians do not tolerate heavy grazing, probably because intensive livestock use tends to dry the soil. References indicate many gentians contain bitter principles used as tonics, stomachics, and in liqueurs, but no mention is made of northern gentian in this regard.
The gentian family (Gentianaceae) derives its name from King Gentius of Illyria, who, according to Pliny, discovered the medicinal virtues of these plants. The specific epithet affinis means "related" in botanical Latin, concerning a very similar species with slightly hairy stems. Northern gentian was first described for science in 1836 by the German botanist and authority on the gentian family, August Grisebach (1814-1879).