What Wildflower Begins Blooming This Week? (May week 4)

This week, I’m featuring Orange-fruited Horse Gentian (Triosteum aurantiacum) as one of our local wildflowers that begins to bloom at this time.

The “horse” of the common names refers to the general coarseness of the plant.  The genus name Triosteum, is derived from the Greek words treis, meaning three, and osteon, meaning “a bone” and referring to the 3 hard nutlets in the fruit which have bony ridges.  Aurantiacum means orange-colored.

Identification Tips:

This wildflower is a herbaceous perennial about 2-3½’ tall that is unbranched.  The central stem is light green, rather stout, and covered with glandular hairs.  Pairs of opposite leaves (each rotate 90 degrees from the pair below) occur along the entire length of the stem.  The leaves of Orange-fruited Horse Gentian are 5 to 10 inches long, 2 to 4 inches wide, broadly oval to elliptic in shape, tapering to winged sessile bases; they are not connate-perfoliate (merged together at their bases and surrounding the stem).  Each leaf has toothless edges, softly hairy surfaces (especially on the underside), and networks of secondary veins are prominent on the underside.

Axillary flowers appear at the bases of lower-middle to upper leaves along the stem; they are stemless (or nearly so), occurring as either solitary flowers or in small clusters of up to 6.  Each flower is ½-¾” long, featuring a tubular corolla that is dull red to purplish red along with 5 reddish green to reddish purple sepals.  Along its upper rim, the corolla has 5 short lobes that are rounded and erect.  The sepals are about the same length as the corolla; there are linear in shape and hairy.  Only a few flowers are in bloom at the same time.

Orange-fruited Horse Gentian

Afterwards, the flowers are replaced by 3-celled fruits that become about ½” long at maturity. Mature fruits are orange to orange-red, ovoid-globoid in shape, and glandular-pubescent; their flesh is dry and mealy. In Autumn these are quite noticeable in the leaf axils. Each fruit (drupe) contains 3 bony seeds that are bluntly 3-angled and oblongoid in shape.

Orange-fruited Horse Gentian (Triosteum aurantiacum)

Plants usually do not occur throughout a given site, but are most often restricted to a few dense patches.

Culinary and Medicinal Uses:

The common name of Wild Coffee (which may be applied to all three native species of Triosteum) is best explained by Merritt Fernald when he wrote that:

Barton, a distinguished botanist of Philadelphia a century and more ago, wrote:

I learned from the late Rev. Dr. Muhlenberg, that the dried and toasted berries of this plant, were considered by some of the Germans of Lancaster County, as an excellent substitute for coffee, when prepared in the same way. Hence the name of wild coffee, by which he informed me it was sometimes known.

SOURCE:  Edible Wild Plants of Eastern North America, by Merritt L. Fernald and Alfred C. Kinsey

Horse gentians were traditionally valued for their medicinal properties.  They were used by American Indians for urinary pain and applied topically to sores and swollen areas.  Roots were used to treat fevers, induce vomiting, and as a powerful laxative.  The Iroquois used an infusion of this plant for soaking sore feet.

Wildlife Value:

The flowers attract long-tongued pollinators, especially long-tongued bumblebees (like Bombus fervidus and Bombus vagans) and Anthophorid bees, seeking nectar.  Smaller bees also collect pollen.

Where Found Locally:

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