The Gentians

By Richo Cech

The root of gentian stimulates the salivary glands and the digestion, while the flowers of this fantastic plant have long excited the gardener and the alpine hiker. The genus Gentiana is extremely diverse, represented by over 200 distinct species worldwide. The plants are distributed globally, mainly occurring in alpine regions. In North America there are 33 recognized species. These include such diverse plants as alpine gentian (G. newberryi), a pale blue flowered, mat-forming plant growing at altitudes up to 3,000 meters (9,800 feet) in the Sierra Nevada of the western states, and the wiregrass gentian (G. pennelliana) that is endemic to Florida and is listed as an endangered species. Despite the wide distribution of gentian as a whole, the individual species do not tend to migrate, but rather stay put in specific ecological niches where conditions are perfectly to their liking. This specificity of conditions (elevation, sun, soil and moisture) makes domestication of wild gentians very challenging.

All species of the Gentian genus, and in fact other plants in the family Gentianaceae1 contain in their roots and in their aerial parts the bitter secoiridoid glycosides that act so efficiently to stimulate gastric secretions. A survey of the ethnographic literature of the New World shows that several different species were used in medicine by the Native Americans (Moerman, 1986). These include marsh gentian (G. affinis), closed gentian (G. andrewsii), fringed gentian (G. crinita), Rocky Mountain gentian (G. calycosa) and several others. Native uses ranged from magicoreligious, to poulticing, to blood purification and of course include the most universal application as a stomachic. In the Old World, the willow gentian (G. asclepiadea), the purple gentian (G. purpurea) and the spotted gentian (G. punctata) were all used regionally for the production of powdered root, Swedish bitters and gentian schnaps (Kohlein, 1991).

It is the yellow gentian (Gentiana lutea) that has been most often employed in herbal medicine. This plant supplies the “official” drug of commerce, the premier bitter agent sold as gentian root. This general preference for the root of yellow gentian is due not only to tradition, but also to the advantages conveyed by the general availability of this widely distributed species and by the impressive size of the root of mature individuals. Even though a little gentian root goes a long way in herbal pharmacy, the long tradition of wild harvesting yellow gentian roots has lead to a general decline in the native stands, and the plant is protected by local governments and regional environmental laws.2 Due to the interchangeability of most if not all gentian species in herbal therapy, the cultivation of yellow gentian roots contributes to the general conservation of Gentiana, and with patience the accomplished grower of medicinal plants can successfully cultivate this valuable plant. Yellow gentian (Gentiana lutea) has a native distribution that includes Portugal and northern Spain, Italy, the Cevennes, the Alps and their foothills, central France and southern Germany, the Carpathians, the Balkans and northern and western Anatolia (Kohlein, 1991). The plant prefers the lime soils of grassy meadows, scree slopes and fens ocurring at an elevation up to 2,500 meters (8,200 feet).

The perennial branching taproot may attain a size as large as a forearm, giving rise to elliptical blue-green leaves on multiple stalks. The flowers occur in glorious clusters at the leaf axils, the flowering plant rising to a height of 2 to 6 feet tall. Even in domestication, mature plants of yellow gentian tend to produce plenty of seed, and seed is the primary method for propagation. The newly harvested and dried seed is sown in outdoor conditions in the fall or early winter, in flats or in nursery beds. About 5 grams of seed is sufficient for the production of 1,000 plants. The seed is sprinkled on the surface of mellow potting soil, then covered with a thin layer of sifted soil or compost and firmly tamped. This layer of soil fixes the seed in position and excludes light, which is deleterious to the germination of gentians. The flats or beds must be kept evenly moist, and a cover of snow is optimal. Germination is in the spring, when the soil begins to warm. The seedlings may be left in place at close spacing until they develop the second set of true leaves, at which time they may be pricked out to pots (kept moist, cool and partially shaded) and allowed to mature for a year or two before transplanting.

Yellow gentian prefers moderately moist, loamy soil of neutral pH, and like many species of gentian it requires an unusual combination of factors for optimal growth—the plant likes to be in the partial to full sun, but prefers to have its roots constantly moist and cool. The best situation consists of elevated, sloping land with a western exposure. Irrigate with cold water and provide a thick surface mulch of organic compost or bark mulch. After transplant, the aerial rosette may stop growing or die back, but given the right conditions the root will continue to expand, delve and establish the plant. Then, in the next spring normal development continues. It takes about 5 years to produce a flowering individual from seed, and the roots continue to put on weight even after the plant matures. The root is not fibrous, and even very old roots are medicinally active. At Horizon Herbs Seed Farm, a two-year-old plant was dug and weighed in at a mere 9.1 grams. The water content was 84% (very high for a root). A mature root was also dug, weighing in at 200 grams and showing a water content of 70 %. On the basis of these figures, it would take only a little more than 2 mature plants to provide a pound of fresh root. Ten pounds of fresh roots would dry down to 3 pounds of dried root.

In United Plant Saver’s own state of Ohio, the closed gentian (G. clausa), pale gentian (G. alba), soapwort gentian (G. saponaria) and striped gentian (G. villosa) are striking native plants that are protected by the state (Marshall, 1993). It is a matter of personal honor for all plant lovers to leave undisturbed these jewels of the wild, and it is up to gardeners everywhere to provide this bitter medicine to those in need.
Copyright 2002, Richard A (Richo) Cech
Horizon Herbs, PO Box 69, Williams, OR 97544

References
1 The applicability of various gentian-like plants in
medicine provides an easy answer to the horticultural
challenges posed by the slow-growing true gentians—look
to the fast and easy-to-grow plants in the genus Centaurium
(C. erythraea, C. muhlenbergii) as viable substitutes.
2 On the 26th of January, 1996, yellow gentian
(Gentiana lutea) was listed by the Convention on the
Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats,
which variously prohibits harvest, regulates access to
sensitive properties, regulates sales and encourages
propagation.