GENTIAN: Origin of a Flower Name
The genus, Gentiana, is named after King Gentius of Illyria who discovered the medical uses of the roots of yellow Gentian around 500 BCE. Illyria was an ancient kingdom on the east coast of the Adriatic Sea comprising what is now northern Albania and Montenegro. The Romans defeated Gentius, the last king of Illyria, at Scodra in 168 BCE and captured him, bringing him to Rome in 165 BCE.
Most dictionaries, including the current Oxford English Dictionary, agree with this origin, saying that gentian owes its name to this King Gentius, relying for this assertion on two ancient authors. It will be of interest, I hope, to see the actual passage that gives us our only clue about the origin of this flower’s name. It appeared in The Natural History, a primitive kind of encyclopedia of science written by Pliny the Elder, a working lawyer and lifelong public servant of Roman emperors. Born in 23 CE Pliny crammed fact-mongering into a life of imperial offices. He died from poisonous fumes while investigating the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE, the same volcanic disaster that buried the little town of Pompeii. While Pliny was not a scientist and was a trifle gullible, he did have a curiosity about the natural world that preserved many ancient kernels of lore and knowledge. From Book 25, Section 34, of his Natural History, here is Pliny's entry on which, for the next two thousand years, philological writers would depend for an explanation of the origin of the name of the gentian:
Gentianam invenit Gentius rex Illyriorum, ubique nascentem, in Illyrico tamen praestandissimam . . . acquosis montibus subalpinis plurima. Usus in radice et suco. Radicis natura est excalfactoria, sed praegnantibus non bibenda.
“Gentius, king of the Illyrians, discovered the gentian, a plant that grows nearly everywhere but does best in Illyria . . .Gentian grows in great abundance on moist elevations in the Alpine foothills. The root of the plant and its juice are the parts most used. The essential virtue of the gentian root is that it warms the body. However infusions of the root or juice should never be drunk by pregnant women.”
Below, a gentian (in German ein Enzian) on an Austrian stamp
Only one other contemporary author gives the Gentius story, and he was Pedanios Dioscorides in the middle of the first century CE, a doctor, a Greek in the Roman army, with some claim to having written the first useful pharmacopoeia. Entitled De materia medica, it was the most copied and revered guide to the medicinal use of plants until the end of the Middle Ages. Dioscorides may have borrowed the gentian story from Pliny, or vice versa.
Family: Gentianaceae, the gentian family, perennial herbs of worldwide distribution including species from New Zealand, the Himalayas, China, Tibet, Europe, the Caucasus, and North America.
Species: Gentiana lutea (Latin luteus ‘creamy yellow’ of the flowers) is native to Europe where its roots still provide gentian bitters or brandy, a supposed digestive and appetite stimulant. One of the best is the Swiss schnapps called Enzian, which is also the German word for gentian.
But the traditional colour of the flowers in this genus is a characteristic deep blue, gentian-blue. Gentiana acaulis (Botanical Latin ‘not-stemmed’) is Trumpet Gentian with blue flowers. Gentiana pneumonanthe (Botanical Latin < pneumon Greek’ lung’ + anthos Greek ‘flower’) is Marsh Gentian or Lung Flower, from its supposed efficacy in easing breathing complaints.
The most spectacular flower blooms in autumn from the hard-to-grow biennial Gentianopsis crinita (Botanical Latin crinitus ‘with hairs’) or Fringed Gentian whose purply-blue petals curve voluptuously and end in beautiful fringed edges. Another fine blue gentian is Gentiana septemfida (Latin ‘sevenfold’, said of the seven-part corolla).
Folkloric Uses of Gentian
The bitter root of gentian species has been much employed in herbalists’ decoctions. From the year 1597 CE, here is John Gerard in The Herball or General History of Plants, writing of “the vertues of Felwoort,” that is, gentian: “It is excellent good, as Galen saith, when there is need of attenuating, purging, cleansing, and removing of obstructions, which qualitie it taketh of his extreme bitternesse . . . This is of such force and vertue, saith Pliny, that it helpeth cattell which are not onely troubled with the cough, but are also brokenwinded. The root of Gentian given in pouder the quantitie of a dramme, with a little pepper and herbe Grace mixed therewith, is profitable for them that are bitten or stung with any manner of venomous beast or mad dog.”
Some Older Common Names of Gentian
Bitterwort, Felwort (Old English feld ‘field’ + Old English wyrt, then worte ‘plant’), and Baldmoney.
From Mrs. Grieve’s A Modern Herbal (1931) :
“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 (cures fevers), emmenagogue (promotes menstrual flow), anthelminthic (rids one of intestinal worms) 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.” Brand names include Gentiane and Enzianwasser.”
WARNING: All of this herbal wisdom is to be taken with a grain of salt and a consultation with conventional medical authority. If you insist on old wives’ cures, at the very least compare granny murmurings with those of a medical doctor.
copyright 2012 © William Gordon Casselman
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