Hidden Gems of the Greenway: The Search for Swamp Gentian

Pushing through chest-high brush and whipping branches, I catch a glance of a small opening in the forest filled with moss and skunk cabbage. Looking down at the pink dot I marked on my map, I see that I am almost on top of the spot I am hoping to find. My excitement grows as I break out of the trees into the small boggy patch, carpeted with sphagnum moss and scattered with white bog orchids, this must be it! As I begin scanning the ground, however, my heart sinks. I must have been too early or, even worse, too late. After a thorough search, I turn to make my way back to the road, but something catches my eye. The sun glints through the forest to the North and I peer through the trees. Intrigued, I make my way through the small stretch of brush and branches and a sunny glade opens before me. Nestled in the bench of a gentle slope and surrounded by tall shaggy conifers, more white bog orchid reaches out of the grasses and rushes. Also called bog candle, it lives up to its name, shining bright in the sun. Hope rising in my chest, I begin exploring the glade, my eyes scanning the ground. Is that a spot of white? Bending close to inspect, I gasp. Lo and behold, there it is, the wildflower that is the subject of my search: The swamp gentian! 

The swamp gentian is just one of many species in decline, which do not deserve to be forgotten in the chaos of the many changes to the environment due to human influence.

After basking in my excitement, I get to work. My partner and I begin systematically searching the glade for more. “Here’s one! And another! And another!” We start our count. All in all, we find a hundred and ninety-five little flowers. We then identify and catalog the other neighboring species. I map the perimeter and make note of the particular features of the area. We examine the surroundings to evaluate any threats to the population. Finally, I lay on my stomach, water seeping up through the moss to dampen my clothes, and take photos of the identifying features of our wildflower. Thanking the plant for the chance to meet it and the land for providing it a home, we pack up our things and start the trek back to the car.

Swamp gentian, which also goes by the Latin name Gentiana douglasiana, is a diminutive plant. At a casual glance, one might easily not notice it: a tiny white flower shorter even than the surrounding grasses. Take a closer look, however, and you’ll find a stunning wildflower with glowing white petals and a smattering of dark purple spots. Even the anthers, the pollen-bearing structures in the center of the flower, are a delicate lavender. Swamp Gentian makes its home in the saturated soils of wet, sunny glades in high elevation forests of the Cascade and Olympic ranges. 

Swamp Gentian resting in a person's palm
Photo Credit: Teddy Pierson

Swamp gentian is ranked as Sensitive in Washington by NatureServe and the Washington Natural Heritage Program (WNHP), and is found only in a handful of locations in the state. Its status as a rare plant makes it of interest to a program called Washington Rare Plant Care and Conservation, colloquially known as Rare Care. Run through the University of Washington Botanic Gardens, Rare Care organizes volunteers, such as myself, to survey hundreds of rare plants across the state. They also collect seeds to store in their robust seed vault, restore dwindling populations, and conduct research. Their work is invaluable, helping to preserve incredible species and habitats that are threatened by climate change, human disturbance, and invasive species. The information Rare Care gathers is provided to land managers to inform their management practices and the WNHP which tracks such data. 

Among all the wonders within our boundaries, the Greenway is one of the homes of the swamp gentian. The Greenway’s work conserving and restoring land is of utmost importance for the continuation and preservation of sensitive species such as the swamp gentian. The swamp gentian is just one of many species in decline, which do not deserve to be forgotten in the chaos of the many changes to the environment due to human influence. Its subtle beauty and sensitive nature are worthy of our care and attention, as a member of the interdependent ecological community of which we are all a part. 

A swampy lake full of yellow pond lilies lit by a sunny day
Photo Credit: Teddy Pierson

As the day waned, my partner and I went in search of the third and final swamp gentian population. Like the previous population where we were unable to find our plant, the population at this location hadn’t been found for almost twenty years, so we had low expectations of finding anything. Cross-referencing multiple maps and reading the topography lines, we followed a barely discernible abandoned road encircling a large pond hidden amongst the trees. Leaving the overgrown road, we bushwacked our way to a second, smaller pond. The pond, when we arrived at its shores, was a lovely sight. Surrounded by spirea bushes and dotted with yellow pond lilies, dragonflies and skippers danced above its still waters. 

As we began to explore the edges of the pond, we encountered carnivorous sundews, white bog orchids, and other neighbors of the swamp gentian present at the first site. My partner and I shared a look. Could this location perhaps be a boom, rather than a bust? Spreading out, we peered closely at the ground. Suddenly, my partner shouted out “Guess what I found!” In disbelief, I quickly but carefully made my way over to them. There it was, swamp gentian! Excited beyond words, I admired the tiny beauties peeking up at me. The number of plants was small, but that they still exist at this site is a discovery that truly warms my heart. Through the combined efforts of good people and organizations, the richness of the land, and the life it supports, diversity prevails. 

If you are interested in joining me as a volunteer for the Rare Care program you can follow this link to their website to learn more.