CentauryBotanical Name: Erythraea centaurium (PERS.)
Family: N.O. Gentianaceae
Synonyms: Centaury Gentian. Century. Red Centaury. Filwort. Centory. Christ's Ladder. Feverwort.
Parts Used: Herb and leaves.
Habitat: The plant is a native of Europe and North Africa. Though common in this country in dry pastures and on chalky cliffs, it cannot be easily reared in a garden, and for its medicinal use is, therefore, collected in the wild state.
Description: The Red Centaury (Erythraea centaurium, Pers.) is an annual, with a yellowish, fibrous, woody root, the stem stiff, square and erect, 3 to 12 inches in height, often branching considerably at the summit. The leaves are of a pale green colour, smooth and shiny, their margins undivided. The lowest leaves are broader than the others, oblong or wedge-shaped, narrowed at the base, blunt at the end and form a spreading tuft at the base of the plant, while the stalkless stem-leaves are pointed and lance-shaped, growing in pairs opposite to one another at somewhat distant intervals on the stalk, which is crowned by flat tufts (corymbs) of rose-coloured, star-like flowers, with five-cleft corollas. The stamens are five in number: the anthers have a curious way of twisting themselves round after they have shed their pollen, this being one of the distinctive points between the plants of this genus and those of the genus Gentiana, with which it has much in common, having by some earlier botanists been assigned to that genus, under the name of Gentiana centaurium, or Centaury Gentian. The flowers open only in fine weather and not after mid-day: Gerard chronicles their love of light, saying that they 'in the day-time and after the sun is up, do open themselves and towards evening do shut up again.' A variety is sometimes found with white corollas.
Centaury varies a great deal according to) its situation, and some botanists enumerate several distinct species, namely: E. pulchella (Dwarf Centaury), a minute plant, 2 to 8 inches high, with an exceedingly slender stem and a few stalked flowers (often only one); this is found on the sandy seashore, especially in the West of England, and has been picked at Newquay, Cornwall; E. littoralis (Dwarf Tufted Centaury), a stunted plant, with broad leaves, and flowers crowded into a kind of head; this occurs on turfy sea-cliffs, and E. latifolia (Broadleaved Centaury), which has even broader leaves than the last, and bears its flowers in forked tufts, the main stem being divided into three branches. There are other minute differences, for which the student may consult more scientific works.
Besides the English species, others from the south of Europe, the Azores, etc., with yellow or pink flowers, are occasionally grown in gardens.
History: The name of the genus to which it is at present assigned, Erythraea, is derived from the Greek erythros (red), from the colour of the flowers. The genus was formerly called Chironia, from the Centaur Chiron, who was famous in Greek mythology for his skill in medicinal herbs, and is supposed to have cured himself with it from a wound he had accidentally received from an arrow poisoned with the blood of the hydra. The English name Centaury has the same origin. The ancients named the plant Fel Terrae, or Gall of the Earth from its extreme bitterness. The old Engiish name of Felwort is equivalent in meaning to this, and is applied to all the plants of the Gentian family. It is also thought to be the 'Graveolentia Centaurea' of Virgil, to which Lucretius gives the more significant epithet of tristia, in reference to this same intense bitterness. As this bitterness had a healing and tonic effect attributed to it, we sometimes find the Centaury called Febrifuga and Feverwort. It is known popularly also as Christ's Ladder, and the name Centaury has become corrupted in Worcestershire to 'Centre of the Sun.' We find a reference to it in Le Petit Albert. Fifteen magical herbs of the Ancients are given: 'The eleventh hearbe is named of the Chaldees, Isiphon . . . of Englishmen, Centory . . . this herbe hath a marvellous virtue, for if it be joined with the blood of a female lapwing, or black plover, and put with oile in a lamp, all that compass it about shall believe themselves to be witches, so that one shall believe of another that his head is in heaven and his feete on earth; and if the aforesaid thynge be put in the fire when the starres shine it shall appeare yt the sterres runne one agaynste another and fyghte.' (English translation, 1619.) Also in a translation of an old mediaeval Latin poem of the tenth century, by Macer, there is mention of Centaury (with other herbs) as being powerful against 'wykked sperytis.'
Of all the bitter appetizing wild herbs which serve as excellent simple tonics, the Centaury is the most efficacious, sharing the antiseptic virtues of the Field Gentian and the Buckbean.
Part Used: The whole herb, collected in July, when just breaking into flower and dried. The plant has a slight odour, which disappears when dried.
The Field Gentian is dried in the same manner.
Constituents: Centaury contains a bitter principle, Erythro-centaurin, which is colourless, crystalline, non-nitrogenous, reddened by sunlight; a bitter glucoside, Erytaurin; Valeric acid, wax, etc.
Medicinal Action and Uses: Aromatic bitter, stomachic and tonic. It acts on the liver and kidneys, purifies the blood, and is an excellent tonic.
The dried herb is given in infusion or powder, or made into an extract. It is used extensively in dyspepsia, for languid digestion with heartburn after food, in an infusion of 1 OZ. of the dried herb to 1 pint of water. When run down and suffering from want of appetite, a wineglassful of this infusion Centaury Tea - taken three or four times daily, half an hour before meals, is found of great benefit. The same infusion may also be taken for muscular rheumatism. Culpepper tells us that: 'the herbe is so safe that you cannot fail in the using of it, only give it inwardly for inward diseases, use it outwardly for outward diseases. 'Tis very wholesome, but not very toothsome.' He says: 'it helps those that have the dropsy, or the green-sickness, being much used by the Italians in powder for that purpose. It kills worms ... as is found by experience.... A dram of the powder taken in wine, is a wonderful good help against the biting and poison of an adder. The juice of the herb with a little honey put to it, is good to clear the eyes from dimness, mists and clouds that offend or hinder sight. It is singularly good both for green and fresh wounds, as also for old ulcers and sores, to close up the one and cleanse the other, and perfectly to cure them both, although they are hollow or fistulous; the green herb, especially, being bruised and laid thereto. The decoction thereof dropped into the ears, cleanses them from worms . . . and takes away all freckles, spots, and marks in the skin, being washed with it.' The Saxon herbalists prescribed it largely for snake-bites and other poisons, and it was long celebrated for the cure of intermittent fevers, hence its name of Feverwort.
The herb formed the basis of the once famous Portland Powder, which was said to be a specific for gout.
Centaury is given with Barberry Bark for jaundice. It has also been much employed as a vermifuge, and a decoction of the plant is said to destroy body vermin.
The green herb, bruised, is reputed to be good as an application to wounds and sores.