Medical Herbs Catalogue



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 occurrence).

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.

GENTIAN, YELLOW Yellow Gentian
(Gentiana lutea LINN.)
Click on graphic for larger image Botanical Name: Gentiana lutea (LINN.) Description Cultivation Part Used Substitutes Constituents Medicinal Action and Uses Preparations and Dosages Part Used: Root.
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 them.

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 prescribed extensively.

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 fever.

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 times daily.

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 taste.

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.' Gentian: '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.

GENTIAN, JAPANESE Botanical Name: Gentiana scabrae Descripton Other Species Synonym: Ryntem Root.
Part Used: Root.

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.)

Other Species:
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 separate species.

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 popularly known.

GENTIAN, AUTUMN Botanical Name: Gentiana amarella (LINN.)
Synonyms: Bitterwort. Felwort. Baldmoney.
Part Used: Root.

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.

GENTIAN, FIELD Botanical Name: Gentiana campestris (LINN.)
Synonyms: Bitterroot. Felwort.
Part Used: Root.

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.

GENTIAN, MARSH Botanical Name: Gentiana Pneumonanthe (LINN.) Part Used: Root.

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.

(Gentiana verna)
Click on graphic for larger image Botanical Name: Gentiana verna Part Used: Root.

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 length.

GENTIAN, CROSS-LEAVED Botanical Name: Gentiana cruciata Part Used: Root.

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.

GENTIAN, FIVE-FLOWERED Botanical Name: Gentiana quinqueflora Part Used: Root.

A 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.

See also CENTAURY.