One late October I was hiking at Soldiers Delight, enjoying the remnants of fall leaf color, but missing the flowers and pollinators of late summer. I paused by a stream to search for lingering invertebrates among the rocks, and my eye caught a flash of blue on the bank. A clump of tall, slender plants stood just before me; most bore brown seed capsules but a few waved showy blue-purple petals edged in delicate fringe, revealing their identity: Gentianopsis crinita, fringed gentian.
They were stunning in their audacity. This is a serpentine barrens, rocky and sparse, with soil uninviting except to the most tenacious species. And yet, it hosts several of the rarest plants in the state and even region, which appear to thrive in these deprived conditions. The fringed gentian is an endangered rarity that is only found here, and in one other spot in Maryland. In mid-summer, it is not uncommon to find the rare sand plain gerardia blooming unconcernedly and abundantly along the path. This lovely pink fuzzy wonder, too, always brings me to my knees.
Ever since that first encounter with the fringed gentian, I look forward to meeting it again. This plant is a biennial, its seeds not widely dispersed unless they are carried away by the stream. There is an official information sign posted directly beside some exposed clumps along the stream on on a lesser-used trail, but I enjoy trying to find the patch that I first met by chance downstream. I bend down to the water, just as I did then, let my attention rove the gold-green substrate, to be grabbed by those beckoning blue fingers.