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   Monument Plant, common in mountain meadows, is a robust and showy plant that scatters itself over large areas.  The tall flower stalks erupting from a very large basal rosette of leaves attract our attention, but a careful look around will reveal numerous smaller Monument Plants not in flower.

     Until quite recently Monument Plant was thought to be biennial, i.e., basal leaf growth in the first season, flower and then seed growth in the second season, and death of the plant at the end of the second season.  But continuous research since 1973 by Dr. David Inouye at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in Gothic, Colorado,  indicates that Monument Plant produces flowers only once in its lifetime of 20 to 80 years and then dies.  It is thus called a monocarpic plant, i.e., one which grows many years, flowers once, then dies.  Perhaps the most well know monocarpic plant is the Southwest's Century Plant.          

     Dr. Inouye's research also shows that periodically large numbers of Monument Plants flower in unison. When such a coordinated flowering occurs, hundreds or even thousands of plants flower within a small area (often a sunny, open, grassy hillside).  The 2003 blooming season was the most spectacular since Dr. Inouye began his research in the 1960s.  The 2005 blooming season almost equaled the 2003 season.  The 2010 season produced an enormous bloom.  Dr. Inouye described the 2010 season as follows:  

In the area around the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory this summer [2010] Frasera speciosa... is exhibiting mast flowering, for the first time since 2005....  In our area it is quite spectacular, with many thousand (maybe 12-15,000) plants flowering in the East River valley, with flower stalks about 5 feet tall. This species is monocarpic, with average age at flowering probably about 30-40 years.

     Dr. Inouye has found that a microscopically detectable flower stalk begins forming 3-4 years before it actually erupts into its massive stalk, and he suspects that there are environmental factors which trigger the flowering.  As of 2010, Dr. Inouye's research shows that "A very wet July and August 4 years previous seems to be the cue for [Frasera speciosa] to start preforming a flower stalk".

     Monument Plant is often mistaken for Mullein (Verbascum thapsus, a yellow Scrophulariaceae) or Corn Lily (Veratrum californicum, a white Melanthiaceae).  But Monument Plant has several distinguishing characteristics: in the non-flowering plants the leaves of the huge basal rosette are long, narrow, smooth, and pale green;  in flowering plants the leaves along the flower stalk are also long and narrow, becoming shorter toward the top of the plant.  Flowers are star-like, wide open, and white with green streaking and purple dots. Numerous flowers are open at the same time all along the flowering stalk.  Mullein's leaves are downy soft from numerous hairs, and the flowers are yellow and few open at any given time near the top of the flower stalk.  Corn Lily's leaves are pleated and elliptical and the numerous flowers are quite small and white/green.

     Monument Plant was first collected for science by David Douglas (of Douglas Fir fame) in the present-day Spokane area in the early 1830s.  The genus name, "Frasera", is for John Fraser, 18th century nurseryman and botanist who collected for Kew Gardens and the Empress of Russia.  "Speciosa" ("showy") is for the leaves and massive display of flowers. (More biographical information about Fraser.)

Frasera speciosa

More Frasera speciosa photographs.
See also Frasera albomarginata.

Frasera speciosa

Frasera speciosa

Frasera speciosa (Monument Plant, Green Gentian)
Gentianaceae (Gentian Family)

Foothills, montane, subalpine, alpine. Meadows, openings. Summer.
Haviland Lake Trail, June 27, 2005 and
Eagle Peak Trail, August 28, 2014.

Monument Plants grows 5-7 feet tall and the stalks are amazingly thick considering that all the growth is from just one season of a few months.  

Frasera speciosa
Frasera speciosa (Monument Plant, Green Gentian)
Gentianaceae (Gentian Family)

Foothills, montane, subalpine, alpine. Meadows, openings. Summer.
Haviland Lake Trail, June 27, 2005.

The spectacular blooming of Monument Plant produces about 600 flowers per plant and about 60 seeds per flower.

Frasera speciosa
Frasera speciosa (Monument Plant, Green Gentian)
Gentianaceae (Gentian Family)

Foothills, montane, subalpine, alpine. Meadows, openings. Summer.
Lake Hope Trail, July 24, 2005.

The symmetry and beauty of Frasera speciosa flowers is apparent, but a closer look reveals some fascinating floral appendages: Each petal has two elliptical bulges composed of a myriad of minute vertical hairs.  These are covered by horizontal fringe with lavender tips.  The fringe is easy to see on all four petals; the horizontal green bulges are best seen in the far left petal under the lavender fringe.

Frasera speciosa
Frasera speciosa (Monument Plant, Green Gentian)
Gentianaceae (Gentian Family)

Foothills, montane, subalpine, alpine. Meadows, openings. Summer.
Lizard Head Trail, August 22, 2007.

Frasera speciosa
Frasera speciosa (Monument Plant, Green Gentian)
Gentianaceae (Gentian Family)

Foothills, montane, subalpine, alpine. Meadows, openings. Summer.
Haviland Lake Trail, June 27, 2005.

Dr. Inouye's research shows that the number of leaves in the swirl of basal leaves roughly corresponds to the age of the plant, but individual plants may produce fewer, the same number, or more leaves in one season than in the previous season.  The Monument Plant at left is about three feet in diameter, has twenty-four leaves, and is perhaps about 24 years old. 

At the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in Gothic, Colorado, Dr. Inouye has a number of Frasera speciosa plants that he planted from seeds in 1981.  Observation of these plants indicates that we need to be a bit cautious in judging the age of Frasera speciosa by counting its basal leaves: In 2011 several of the 30 year old plants had just two leaves and one had over 40 leaves.  Some of the 30 year old plants flowered in 2011; most did not.

Frasera speciosa (Monument Plant, Green Gentian)
Gentianaceae (Gentian Family)

Foothills, montane, subalpine, alpine. Meadows, openings. Summer.
Lizard Head Trail, May 29, 2003.

Numerous leaves probably indicate a decades old plant.  We returned to visit this plant several times in 2003 and saw its leaves elongate and widen and their brown/red tips turn green.  A flower stalk elongated to six feet with hundreds of flowers.  The plant died after flowering and in future years a dozen young plants arose from the myriad of seeds produced by those flowers.  Notice the dried leaves from past years' growth.

More Frasera speciosa photographs.

Range map © John Kartesz,
Floristic Synthesis of North America

State Color Key

Species present in state and native
Species present in state and exotic
Species not present in state

County Color Key

Species present and not rare
Species present and rare
Species extirpated (historic)
Species extinct
Species noxious
Species exotic and present
Native species, but adventive in state
Eradicated
Questionable presence

Range map for Frasera speciosa  

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