Here's a favorite September flower of Patricia K. Armstrong, owner of Prairie Sun Consultants and field studies instructor at College of DuPage. Why she loves it: As summer ends, prairie grasses -- such as big and little bluestem -- put on their royal mahogany and purple robes. Sky blue asters and showy goldenrods add their ornate filigree trim, and hidden under all this flurry of colorful bloom and silvery seed set, hides the crown jewel of the prairie. About Gentiana puberulenta: Also known as prairie gentian or downy gentian, it grows 10 to 12 inches high. Mature plants may have several stems, each with three to five flowers at the top. The five-petaled (alternating with five smaller fringes), 1 1/4-inch tubular-cupped flower is the deepest blue-violet velvet you have ever seen. But they are not easy to see in the tall grass, and they are shy. They close up at night or on cloudy days, making private bed chambers for bumblebees and sulphur butterflies. What it likes: Native to Midwestern dry, sandy or mesic prairies, it is very difficult to grow from seed. Tricks of the trade: You probably will not be able to buy this plant from a nursery. Sow seed under the shaded edges of other plants, such as little bluestem or showy goldenrod when it ripens in late October or November. You also can sow them in raised beds of rich, moist soil and mulch with dry oak leaves or evergreen boughs. Seeds germinate when March nights reach 35 to 40 degrees and days are warmer. Transplant them out during their third year. Even if you can't grow them in your garden, visit a wild prairie this last week of September. Enjoy the clouds billowing in the sky, the wind heaving waves of burnished bluestem grasses, the chirping concerts of autumn insects, and the smell of dusky grasses and dropseed. Search for the cobalt blue cups of prairie gentian hidden under all this beauty. Treasure the discovery if you are lucky enough to find one, or treasure the experience of a fall prairie if you are not. Best buds: Little bluestem, sky blue aster, showy goldenrod, prairie Junegrass, silky aster.
Patricia K. Armstrong