From the Telegraph, 27th April 2002, an article reproduced in full, written by Ursula Buchan.
How to grow: Gentiana
Ursula Buchan’s guide to the queen of all alpine plants
Gentiana verna: exhilarates the heart and mind
MENTION the word “gentian” in a gathering of gardeners and, more often than not, a frisson will go through the company. For the word conjures up images of short-lived, choice antipodean species, lovingly tended in alpine houses, or Asian species growing in carpets in the acid soils of long-established Scottish or Sussex gardens.
There are certainly some pernickety gentians, which are best-suited to the care of enthusiasts, but there are also a number that will settle down reasonably happily in most gardens, provided a few cultivation requirements are met. The spring gentian, Gentiana verna, is one of these. Native to mountainous parts of Europe, it is grown in rock beds and troughs in many parts of this country.
In 1906, an advertisement was published in the Journal of Botany extolling the virtues of Gentiana verna as “the queen of all known alpine plants in the whole world. It is the only known flower in existence that exhilarates the heart and mind of the fair sex”. Leaving aside such a bizarre claim, this underlines the high esteem in which this plant has long been held, and not just by gardeners. Gentiana verna can still be found growing wild in western Ireland, and also on the calcium-rich grasslands of Upper Teesdale in County Durham. Its flowering in late spring and early summer is a great draw to wild-flower enthusiasts, although its very particular habitat and rarity mean that it is strictly protected by law.
The appeal of this plant lies in the intense ultramarine blue of the flat, star-like flowers with their five propeller-shaped petals and white throats. These flowers unfold from pyramid-shaped buds over several weeks in late April and May, and are one of the great joys of the hardy alpine garden in late spring. The flowers may be only 2-3in tall, but the quality and depth of their colour always ensures that they are noticed.
These flowers arise above tufts of mid- or grey-green pointed (lanceolate) leaves, which are mainly held in a basal rosette, although there are a few opposite leaves on the short stems. The rosettes can form small mats in time.
Gentiana verna is often found on sale as G. verna subsp angulosa, although the purists consider the wild angulosa to be a synonym for G. verna subsp tergestina. Dr Christopher Grey-Wilson, the alpines expert, believes that there is great confusion, and that no one knows where `Angulosa’ of gardens arose. Certainly, it is a sturdier plant with longer leaves and holds an Award of Garden Merit from the RHS, and is the plant you are likely to get if you buy Gentiana verna from a nursery. It was famously grown by the late Joe Elliott, son of Clarence Elliott, at his nursery at Broadwell, Gloucestershire.
There is also the subspecies G. verna subsp. balcanica, a variant from the Balkans with ovate leaves, bigger flowers and broader calyx wings than the type. In the wild, Gentiana verna differs in flower colour from white and pale violet to intense blue.
Among other reasonably straightforward gentians, there is the late-spring-flowering, trumpet-shaped G. acaulis and the summer-flowering Gentiana septemfida, together with its variant lagodechiana. All are quite readily available.
The native habitat of Gentiana verna must be an indicator of how it should be treated in the garden. This plant is a lime-lover, which is suited to a soil with a pH of 6.5 or above. It is also a plant of free-draining, mountain meadows or rocky places where rainfall is high, so thrives best in a gritty soil that does not dry out for long, if at all, in summer.
Because of its diminutive size and the beauty of the flowers, it is eminently suited to being grown in a raised trough or rock bed, in a paving slot or in a pot in an alpine house. It is very hardy and its flowers are pretty weather-proof, but cultivation in a pot gives the grower the chance to examine its charms at close quarters.
Gentiana verna is best planted in either spring or autumn in a gritty mixture of loam, leaf mould, peat or peat substitute, and limestone chippings. The leaf mould or similar organic material will help retain moisture around the roots in summer. The flowers and evergreen mats of leaves are also well set off by gravel.
The problem with Gentiana verna is that it is often not long-lived. Christopher Grey-Wilson, who grows it in troughs, says: “Three years, no longer. The trouble is that as every shoot flowers, it tends to flower itself to death.” This also makes propagating it by cuttings difficult.
Because this gentian is not always long-lived, it is sensible to propagate it regularly. The seed, if sown immediately it is ripe and put in an open cold frame, should germinate in the spring. Great care has to be taken, however, not to damage the roots of seedlings when they are pricked out, which should be done when they are still very small. If successfully transplanted, any seedling will flower the spring after germination.
Cuttings can also be taken in early summer, if a shoot can be found that has not flowered, but it is not wise to try to divide the plant because it dislikes root disturbance so much.
This gentian will associate with a host of spring-flowering alpines such as Edraianthus pumilio, Primula auricula and P. marginata, Pulsatilla vernalis and Saxifraga oppositifolia. It must be said, however, that it looks glorious growing in a large group by itself.