Folklore speaks of many medicinal and mystical applications of herbs and roots. Gentian is one of the widely used roots. It is said that during the reign of King Gentius, Illyria was devastated by the plague. So great was the mortality among his subjects, the pious king appointed a season of fasting, and prayed that if he shot an arrow into the air the Almighty would direct its descent, guiding it to some herb possessed of sufficient virtue to arrest the course of the disease. The king shot the arrow and in falling it cleft the root of a plant which, when tested, was found to possess the most astonishing curative powers, and did much to lessen the ravages of the plague. The plant from that time on became known as the Gentian, in honor of the good king, whose supplications brought about the divine manifestation of its medicinal properties.
The genus Gentiana includes approximately four hundred species distributed from boreal to tropical regions, although the majority are found in the north temperate zone. A large number of species are found in Europe, more than sixty having been reported from Russia, and there are nearly one hundred in North America.
A common form, found growing in fields and woodlands, is the closed Gentian (Gentiana Andrewsii). The fanciful name, Cloistered Heart, has been given to the plant because of the story that once a fairy queen sought to elude pursuit by secreting herself in the flower of a fringed Gentian. In order that she might be more effectually shielded, the plant closed the lobes of its corolla and in gratitude the queen decorated the interior of the flower with brilliant stripes. It is in order to preserve this fairy painting that the flowers have remained closed ever since. It also blooms during the autumn months and is among the most attractive forms that mark the close of the floral season.
In general, Gentians have opposite leaves that are sometimes arranged in a basal rosette, and trumpet-shaped flowers that are usually deep blue or azure, but may vary from white, creamy and yellow to red. Many species also show considerable polymorphism with respect to flower color. Typically, blue-flowered species predominate in the Northern Hemisphere, with red-flowered species dominant in the Andes (where bird pollination is probably more heavily favored by natural selection). White-flowered species are scattered throughout the range of the genus but dominate in New Zealand. All gentian species have terminal tubular flowers and most are pentamerous, i.e. with 5corolla lobes (petals), and 5 sepals, but 4-7 in some species. The style is rather short or absent. The corolla shows folds (= plicae) between the lobes. The ovary is mostly sessile and has nectary glands.
The medicinal properties of the Gentian are obtained from the root, mainly (the bark less) which, after being powdered, yields its remedial qualities to water and alcohol. Gentian is used for digestion problems such as loss of appetite, fullness, intestinal gas, diarrhea, gastritis, heartburn, and vomiting. It is also used for fever, hysteria, and high blood pressure. Some people use gentian to prevent muscle spasms, treat parasitic worms, start menstrual periods, and as a germ killer. Gentian is applied to the skin for treating wounds and cancer.
Gentian is used in combination with European elderflower, verbena, cowslip flower, and sorrel for treating symptoms of sinus infections (sinusitis). It is used in combination with other products for malaria.
If you plan to make your own gentian preparation, be sure you identify gentian correctly. The highly toxic white hellebore (Veratrum album) can be misidentified as gentian and has caused accidental poisoning when used in homemade preparations. In the cosmetic industry it is used as an astringent, and to stimulate circulation.
In the beverage industry, Gentian root is used in the production of Gentian, a distilled beverage produced in the Alps. Some species are harvested for the manufacture of aperitif wines, liqueurs, tonics and flavouring, as in bitters.
- The soft drink “Moxie” contains “Gentian Root Extractives”. The French liqueurs Salers, Aveze and Suze are made principally from yellow gentian.
- The Italian brewery Birra Del Borgo brews a beer, Genziana, with gentian as an adjunct.
- Australian Lemon and Lime Bitters produced by the Bundaberg brewing company lists “Gentian Root” as one of the ingredients in its “Bitters Brew”.
- The Polish vodka Zoladkowa Gorzka is flavoured with gentian.
- Likewise it is an ingredient in the Italian liqueur Aperol.
- The popular aromatic Angostura bitters lists Gentian as fourth on its ingredients list.
There you have it. Gentian comes in various colors, shapes and forms and has a wide variety of uses but when it comes down to it, I like Gentians just because they’re beautiful. So in closing, here is John Donne: “No spring nor summer beauty hath such grace as I have seen in one autumnal face”.