Today our herb is Gentian (Gentiana lutea) of the family Gentianaceae.
Other names gentian is known by are gall weed; bitter root; Bitterwort; Gelber Entian, Enzian (German); grande gentiane, gentiane jaune (French); genziana maggiore (Italian); Goryczka Zolta, Gencjan (Polish)
The plant’s height is 3 feet, sometimes taller with a width of 1 foot. Flowers are 1-inch pale yellow blooms in clusters of 3 to 10. It takes about 3 years to flower. Leaves are shiny up to 10 inches long, tightly clasped on upright stems; occur at each joint of the stem with five prominent veins marking the underside. Upper leaves are small with no leafstalks. Fruit is a two-valved capsule of oblong shape. It blooms from May to June.
Cultivation: It is a perennial to Zone 3. Germination is within 14-28 days. Stratify for 3 weeks. Space 10-14 inches. Soil temperature 70-75F. Soil: rich humus, moist with good drainage and heavy watering. (native habitat is high bogs and wet pastures); pH: 5.5-6.5. Sun: Light shade. Prefers cool climate. May be difficult to establish, but plants can live over 50 years. Propagation: for best results sow fresh seeds in the autumn to naturally stratify. Established plants can be divided. The seeds require a period of vernalization at a low temperature or treatments to stimulate germination. In spring, after some two months of germinating in a substratum of sand and peat, the seedlings may be transplanted, ten to the square yard, taking care to water and weed. They benefit from an annual top dressing fresh acid soil or peat moss. In very cold climates with inadequate snow cover, they need light mulching with hay or evergreen boughs to protect them.
Harvest: The rhizome and roots are harvested in autumn and spring in the fifth or sixth year before the renewal of plant growth. They are fleshy, give out a penetrating odor of damp earth and have a very bitter taste. The entire hypogean apparatus is removed and after cursory cleaning this is dried, for herbal use swift action is necessary, in an oven at about 120F; in the liquor industry the plants have to be slightly fermented before drying. If dried slowly and then powdered, the root will retain its desired bitterness and color. Good-quality roots are dark reddish brown, tough and flexible with a strong disagreeable odor. The taste should be sweet at first, and then deeply bitter.
History: King Gentius of Illyria (180-67 BC( is said to have introduced gentian to medicine and given the herb his name after it cured his army of a mysterious fever. Gentian was used by the ancient Egyptians, Arabs, Greeks and Romans as an appetite stimulant, antiseptic wound wash, and treatment for intestinal worms, digestive disorders, liver ailments and “female hysteria.” It is a bitter flavoring used for alcoholic drinks, especially in Germany and Switzerland, where gentian flavored beer before the introduction of hops. Gentian wine was served as an apertif at 18th century dinner parties to encourage the guests’ digestion.
The term “moxie” (meaning courage tinged with recklessness) comes from Moxie, a bitter soft drink available only in New England since the 1890s which uses gentian root.
Character: very bitter, cold, astringent, drying
Meridians/Organs affected: liver, gall bladder
Properties: bitter, tonic, alterative, antipyretic, appetite and gastric stimulant, anti-inflammatory, febrifuge
Culinary: Gentian is found in any liquor store as the chief flavor in vermouth, and in Stockton bitters and Angostura bitters, both originally hailed as digestive tonics.
Medicinal: One of the most bitter of the bitter digestive tonics, gentian is often called “bitter root”. Taken 30 minutes before eating, it increases the appetite, stimulating digestive juices, pancreas activity, the blood supply to the digestive tract, and intestinal peristalsis. It also decreases intestinal inflammation and kills worms. Digestive juice begin flowing about 5 minutes after the herb reaches the stomach, and the level achieved in 30 minutes is maintained for 2 to 3 hours. It is especially helpful in fat and protein digestion and slightly raises stomach acidity. A German study found it extremely effective in curing indigestion and heartburn when volunteers were given gentian with small amounts of cayenne, ginger, and wormwood. Gentian is also used to treat liver and spleen problems, and to promote menstruation. At times, its fever-lowering action has been considered superior to Peruvian bark. There is some evidence that it makes the body more sensitive to adrenalin and may indirectly stimulate more than appetite. It was once used externally to clean wounds.
America’s 19th-century Eclectics considered gentian a powerful tonic and prescribed it to improve appetite and stimulate digestion. Gentian was listed in the U.S. Pharmacopoeia from 1820 to 1955 as a digestive stimulant.
Gentian Digestive Tonic:
½ cup fresh gentian root
¼ cup fresh peppermint leaves
1 Tbsp fresh gingerroot, peeled and sliced
1 cup water
1 cup glycerin
Combine water and glycerin in a saucepan and simmer all ingredients over low flame for about 45 minutes. Strain. When liquid is cool, store in an amber jar or bottle. Take one teaspoon before each meal to aid digestion. Tonic will keep for about a year on the shelf and longer when refrigerated.
Other Uses: Used by veterinarians to improve animals’ appetites. Fermentation and subsequent distillation of the root produces “gentian grappa.” It is used in the liquor industry to prepare apertifs, syrups, and sparkling drinks as well as in vermouth and angostura. Apertifs can also be prepared quite easily by infusing the root in white wine.
Toxicity: Large doses can produce nausea and even vomiting. Gentian should not be given to children under age 2 or in cases of peptic ulcers. German physicians discourage its use by people with high blood pressure.
The Complete Medicinal Herbal, Penelope Ody, Dorling Kindersley, 1993
Encyclopedia of Herbs and Their Uses, Deni Bown, Dorling Kindersley, 1995; ISBN: 0-7894-0184-3
The Healing Herbs, Michael Castleman, Rodale Press, 1991
The Illustrated Herb Encyclopedia, Kathi Keville, Mallard Press, 1991
The Naturalist’s Herb Guide, Sally Ann Berk, Black Dog & Levanthal, 1996; ISBN: 1-884822-52-5
Potter’s New Cyclopaedia of Botanical Drugs and Preparations, R.C.Wren, C.W.Daniel, 1985, ISBN: 0-85207-197-3
Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs, edited by Claire Kowalchik & William Hylton, Rodale Press, 1987
Simon & Schuster’s Guide to Herbs and Spices, edited by Stanley Schuler, Fireside Books, 1990
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