Family: N.O. Gentianaceae
The Gentians are an extensive group of plants,
numbering about 180 species, distributed throughout all climates, though
mostly in temperate regions and high mountains, being rare in the
Arctic. In South America and New Zealand, the prevailing colour of the
flower is red, in Europe blue (yellow and white being of rarer
The name of the genus is derived from Gentius, an ancient King of
Illyria (180-167 B.C.), who, according to Pliny and Dioscorides,
discovered the medicinal value of these plants. During the Middle Ages,
Gentian was commonly employed as an antidote to poison. Tragus, in 1552,
mentions it as a means of diluting wounds.
Botanical: Gentiana lutea (LINN.)
---Habitat---The Yellow Gentian is a native of the Alpine and
sub-alpine pastures of central and southern Europe, frequent in the
mountains of Spain and Portugal, the Pyrenees, Sardinia and Corsica, the
Apennines, the Mountains of Auvergne, the Jura, the lower slopes of the
Vosges, the Black Forest and throughout the chain of the Alps as far as
Bosnia and the Balkan States. It does not reach the northern countries
of the Continent, nor the British Isles. At an elevation of from 3,000
to 4,500 feet, it is a characteristic species of many parts of France
and Switzerland, where, even when not in flower, the numerous barren
shoots form conspicuous objects: the leaves are at first sight very
similar to Veratrum album, the White Hellebore, which is its
frequent companion. Out of Europe, the plant occurs in the mountains of
Lydia. In some parts it occupies large tracts of country, being
untouched by any kind of cattle.
All the known species are remarkable for the intensely bitter properties
residing in the root and every part of the herbage, hence they are
valuable tonic medicines. That most commonly used in Europe is
Gentiana lutea, the Yellow Gentian. The root of this species is the
principal vegetable bitter employed in medicine, though the roots of
several other species, including our native ones, are said to be equally
efficacious. Before the introduction of hops, Gentian, with many other
bitterherbs, was used occasionally in brewing.
Gentian roots are collected and dried in central and southern Europe,
much of the supply for this country having formerly come from Germany,
though it is also imported from Switzerland, France and Spain, and
French Gentian is considered of special excellence.
Yellow Gentian is one of the many herbs so far not cultivated in England
for medicinal use, though preparations of the root are in constant use
in every dispensary, and it is much prescribed also by veterinary
surgeons. Though the plant is indigenous in central Europe, it can
readily be grown from seed in England, and could quite easily be
cultivated as a garden or field crop in this country. Though not often
met with, it has been grown in gardens since the time of Gerard, who
tells us that a learned French physician sent him from Burgundy plants
of this species for his garden on Holborn Hill. It is a highly
ornamental plant, forming one of the most stately hardy herbaceous
perennials for the garden border, and when successfully treated will
grow luxuriantly, even if in the neighbourhood of London.
---Description---The root is long and thick, generally about a
foot long and an inch in diameter, but sometimes even a yard or more
long and 2 inches in diameter, of a yellowish-brown colour and a very
bitter taste. The stem grows 3 or 4 feet high or more, with a pair of
leaves opposite to one another, at each joint. The lowest leaves have
short foot-stalks, but the upper ones are stalkless, their bases almost
embracing the stem. They are yellowish-green in colour, oblong in shape
and pointed, rather stiff, with five prominent veins on the underside,
and diminish gradually in size as they grow up the stem. The large
flowers are in whorls in the axils of the uppermost few pairs of leaves,
forming big orange-yellow clusters. The corollas are wheel-shaped,
usually five-cleft, 2 inches across, sometimes marked with rows of small
brown spots, giving a red tinge to the otherwise deep yellow. Seeds in
abundance are produced by strong plants, and stock is easily raised from
---Cultivation---For the successful cultivation of G. lutea,
a strong, loamy soil is most suitable, the deeper the better, as the
stout roots descend a long way down into the soil. Plenty of moisture is
also desirable and a position where there is shelter from cold winds and
exposure to sunshine. Old plants have large crowns, which may be divided
for the purpose of propagation, but growing it on a large scale, seeds
would be the best method. They could be sown in a frame, or in a nursery
bed in a sheltered part of the garden and the young seedlings
transplanted. They take about three years to grow to flowering size. It
is, however, likely that the roots are richest in medicinal properties
before the plants have flowered. A big clump of G. lutea is
worthy of a conspicuous position in any large flower garden, quite apart
from its medicinal value.
---Part Used---The rhizome and roots collected in autumn and
dried. When fresh, they are yellowish-white externally, but gradually
become darker by slow drying. Slow drying is employed to prevent
deterioration in colour and to improve the aroma. Occasionally the roots
are longitudinally sliced and quickly dried, the drug being then pale in
colour and unusually bitter in taste, but this variety is not official.
The dried root as it occurs in commerce is brown and cylindrical, 1 foot
or more in length, or broken up into shorter pieces, usually 1/2 inch to
1 inch in diameter, rather soft and spongy, with a thick reddish bark,
tough and flexible, and of an orange-brown colour internally. The upper
portion is marked with numerous rings, the lower longitudinally
wrinkled. The root has a strong, disagreeable odour, and the taste is
slightly sweet at first, but afterwards very bitter.
---Substitutes---G. purpurea, G. pannonica, G. punctata
and G. acaulis are European gentians having similar medicinal
properties to G. lutea and are used indiscriminately with each
other and the official root, from which they differ but little in
appearance, though are somewhat smaller.
American Gentian root is derived from G. puberula, G. saponaria
and G. Andrewsii. This drug is said to have properties
practically identical with those of European varieties.
Belladonna and Aconite roots, and the rhizomes of Orris and White
Hellebore have been found mixed with the genuine root, and the powdered
root of commerce is frequently adulterated, ground almond shells and
olive stones having been used for this purpose.
---Constituents---The dried Gentian root of commerce contains
Gentiin and Gentiamarin, bitter glucosides, together with Gentianic acid
(gentisin), the latter being physiologically inactive. Gentiopicrin,
another bitter glucoside, a pale yellow crystalline substance, occurs in
the fresh root, and may be isolated from it by treatment with boiling
alcohol. The saccharine constituents of Gentian are dextrose, laevulose,
sucrose and gentianose, a crystallizable, fermentable sugar. It is free
from starch and yields from 3 to 4 per cent ash.
---Medicinal Action and Uses---Gentian is one of the most useful
of our bitter vegetable tonics. It is specially useful in states of
exhaustion from chronic disease and in all cases of general debility,
weakness of the digestive organs and want of appetite. It is one of the
best strengtheners of the human system, and is an excellent tonic to
combine with a purgative to prevent its debilitating effects. Many
dyspeptic complaints are more effectually relieved by Gentian bitters
than by Peruvian Bark. It is of extreme value in jaundice and is
Besides being unrivalled as a stomachic tonic, Gentian possesses
febrifuge, emmenagogue, anthelmintic and antiseptic properties, and is
also useful in hysteria, female weakness, etc. Gentian with equal parts
of Tormentil or galls has been used with success for curing intermittent
As a simple bitter, Gentian is considered more palatable combined with
an aromatic, and for this purpose orange peel is frequently used. A
tincture made with 2 OZ. of the root, 1 OZ. of dried orange peel, and
1/2 oz. bruised cardamom seeds in a quart of brandy is an excellent
stomachic tonic, and is efficacious in restoring appetite and promoting
digestion. A favourite form in which Gentian has been administered in
country remedies is as an ingredient in the so-called Stockton bitters,
in which Gentian and the root of Sweet Flag play the principal part.
The dose of the fluid extract is 1/2 to 1 teaspoonful in water, three
Fresh Gentian root is largely used in Germany and Switzerland for the
production of an alcoholic beverage. The roots are cut, macerated with
water, fermented and distilled; the distillate contains alcohol and a
trace of volatile oil, which imparts to it a characteristic odour and
---Preparations and Dosages---Fluid extract, 1/2 to 1 drachm.
Compound infusion, B.P. 1/2 to 1 OZ. Compound tincture, B.P. and U.S.P.,
1/2 to 1 drachm. Solid extract, B.P., 2 to 8 grains.
Culpepper states that our native Gentians 'have been proved by the
experience of divers physicians not to be a whit inferior in virtue to
that which comes from beyond sea.'
'comforts the heart and
preserves it against faintings and swoonings: The powder of the dry
roots helps the biting of mad dogs and venomous beasts.... The herb
steeped in wine, and the wine drank, refreshes such as be over-weary
with traveling, and grow lame in their joints, either by cold or evil
lodgings: it helps stitches, and griping pains in the sides: is an
excellent remedy for such as are bruised by falls . . . when Kine are
bitten on the udder by any venomous beast, do but stroke the place with
the decoction of any of these and it will instantly heal them.'
In the eighteenth century Gentian wine was drunk as
an aperitif before dinner.
Botanical: Gentiana scabrae
---Description---The rhizome is dark greyish brown, attaining
about 10 cm. in length and 5 mm. in diameter. It is irregularly annulate,
and bears on the top stem-bases occasionally stem-remnants, and on the
lateral and lower sides numerous roots. The crosssection of the rhizome
is dark brown, and shows in the wood fibro-vascular bundles, running
irregularly. The roots are brownishyellow, attaining about 20 cm. in
length and 3 mm. in diameter, and longitudinally wrinkled. The
cross-section of the root is brown, having a darker coloured wood, which
shows radially arranged trachea at the periphery. It does not contain
sclerenchymatous cells; the parenchymatous cells contain many oxalate
crystals, but no starch grains. It has a very bitter taste. It may be
used as a substitute for radix gentianae. (From The Chemist and
Druggist of August 19, 1922.)
The two most frequently found nativeGentians are Gentiana amarella,
the Autumn Gentian, and G. campestris, the Field Gentian, which
were formerly pronounced by both Linnaeus and Scopoli to be merely
variations of the same species, but are now universally described as
Both have been used for their bitterness instead of hops, and also as a
medicine, in common with others of the same genus, and the dried root
and dried herb of the Field Gentian are still sold by herbalists for use
as a bitter tonic, having the same properties as the foreign Gentian.
The old English names for these Gentians - Bitterwort and Felwort (Fel
being an old word for the gall) testify to their bitter qualities being
Botanical: Gentiana amarella (LINN.)
---Synonyms---Bitterwort. Felwort. Baldmoney.
The Autumn Gentian (Gentiana amarella, Linn.) is not uncommon in
calcareous soils and in dry pastures, in most parts of Europe, flowering
from July to September. It has an annual root, twisted and yellowish,
somewhat thready. The stem is square, erect, bearing several pairs of
stalkless, dark green leaves, each with three prominent veins, and
clothed from top to bottom with flowers on short stalks in the axils of
the leaves, one flower terminating the stem. The calyx is pale, with
green ribs, divided half-way down into five lance-shaped, nearly equal
segments. The corolla is salver-shaped, blue-purple in colour, the tube
quite as long as the calyx, and five-cleft, the lobes being nearly
equal; the mouth of the tube is provided with a purple, upright fringe,
which conceals the stamens. In sunshine, the lobes of the corolla are
spread wide horizontally, forming conspicuous blue stars.
Botanical: Gentiana campestris (LINN.)
The Field Gentian (Gentiana campestris, Linn.) resembles the
Autumn Gentian in general character, though the plant is as a rule
smaller, 4 to 12 inches high. Its stems are erect and much branched, the
branches long with leaves and flowers scattered the whole length,
whereas G. amarella, when branched, has the branches short, even
the lower ones not exceeding the length of the leaves from which they
spring, and the upper ones mostly much shorter. The flowers are fewer in
number than those of amarella, though larger and on longer
flower-stalks. The essential difference between the species, however, is
that both calyx and corolla are four-cleft in G. campestris, the
two outer, oval lobes of the calyx being also much larger, completely
enfolding and concealing the two smaller ones, which are not a fifth
part as broad. The salver-shaped corolla is of a dull purplish colour,
fringed in the throat, as in G. amarella. The roots are small,
but penetrate some distance into the soil. This species grows in
pastures, particularly near the sea, but is not so much confined to a
calcareous soil as G. amarella. It is an annual, and flowers in
August and September. This is the principal species used by the
peasantry in Sweden in lieu of hops in brewing beer.
Botanical: Gentiana Pneumonanthe (LINN.)
The Marsh Gentian (Gentiana Pneumonanthe, Linn.), though
occasionally found on moist, boggy heaths, is a plant of much more local
occurrence in Great Britain than the two previous species. Its stems are
3 to 18 inches high, the leaves 1 to 2 inches long. The flowers, 1 1/2
to 2 inches long are rather few in number, pale blue externally, with
five paler stripes and dark, vivid blue within, variegated with white in
the throat. Gerard tells us of this pretty little plant, which is quite
worthy of cultivation, that 'the gallant flowers hereof bee in their
bravery about the end of August,' and goes on to say that 'the later
physicians hold it to be effectual against pestilent diseases and the
bitings and stingings of venomous beasts.' It has the bitterness and
other qualities of the preceding species.
This variety grows in moist places on heaths near Swanage, Dorset.
Botanical: Gentiana verna
The flowers are of such a startling blue that A. C. Benson has described
it as 'the pure radiance of the untroubled heaven.'
The flowers grow singly on exceedingly short stalks, and only open if
the sun is shining when they stretch their blue petals wide and face the
blue above them. There is a narrow, green calyx-cup and a blue tube
issuing therefrom which opens out into five lobes star-wise. The leaves
grow in pairs, stalkless, clasping the stem. They are not very numerous
on the short flower-stalks, but form close rosettes of foliage near the
soil. The flower-stems are rigidly erect, about 4 to 12 inches being
their usual height. It flowers in April and May and is to be found in
Westmorland, but is not so much at home in England as it is on Irish
soil; it grows in profusion, too, on the Isle of Arran. It likes
limestone and chalky ground.
We have only six varieties of Gentians in Great Britain, one of which (G.
nivalis) is found on the Breadalbane and Clora Mountains. Another
species (G. acaulis) most nearly resembles our G. Pneumonanthe.
The flowers are bright blue and rather elongated, 1 to 2 inches in
Botanical: Gentiana cruciata
Gentiana cruciata (Cross-leaved Gentian), so called because its
leaves grow in the form of a cross, has been recommended in hydrophobia.
In homoeopathic medicine a tincture of the root is used in hoarseness
and sore throat.
Botanical: Gentiana quinqueflora
tincture is also made from the fresh flowering plant of Gentiana
quinqueflora (Five-flowered Gentian) and used in homoeopathy as a
tonic and stomachic, and in intermittent fevers.