Gentian

Gentian grows naturally around the world and is known for its herbal remedies and the striking color of its flowers.

Quick Facts
General Information
  • Common name(s)Yellow gentian, bitter root, centiyane, genciana
  • Common name(s)Yellow gentian, bitter root, centiyane, genciana
  • Scientific nameGentiana lutea
  • Scientific nameGentiana lutea
  • Geographic distributionmost of the world
  • Plant typeHerb
  • Main Economic UseMedicinal
  • Plant Life CyclePerennial
  • Food GroupHerbs
  • Main Consumed PartRoot
  • OLD Main Economic UseBeverage Industry
  • Native RegionEurope
  • Native RegionEurope
  • Growing HabitatTemperate Mountain Regions
  • Growing HabitatTemperate Mountain Regions
Gentian

Already a well-known healing agent by the rise of ancient Greece and Rome, gentian has long been employed for human use throughout history. Gentian is native to temperate, mountainous regions of central and southern Europe, particularly thriving in the Pyrenees, the Alps, and the Balkans. However, many species of gentian grow natively around the world.

Medicinal and Nutritional Information

Quick Facts (Medicinal and Nutritional Information)
  • Medicinal actionCardioprotective, Choleretic
  • Key constituentsamarogentin
  • Ways to useCapsules, Food, Tincture, Syrup
  • Medicinal rating(1) Very minor uses
  • Safety rankingUse with caution

Health Benefits of Gentian

Used for many centuries for medicinal purposes, gentian continues to be beneficial today. While there are numerous uses for gentian, some of its main health benefits include:

  • Aiding digestion. The bitter compounds of gentian stimulate gastric secretions, including bile flow, and gastrointestinal motility.

  • Improving cardiovascular health. Gentian supports cardiac function by reducing inflammation.

In addition, gentian is thought to possess other medicinal benefits, such as:

  • Healing wounds. Studies have suggested that gentian has regenerative properties that quicken the healing times for surface wounds, such as burns and cuts.

  • Treating sinus infections. Research shows that taking gentian in combination with other herbs with similar properties can help reduce the symptoms of sinus infections.

How It Works

Gentian has numerous compounds which give it its medicinal properties. First and foremost, amarogentin, a monoterpene, has antibacterial and antifungal attributes, and is also mainly responsible for the plant's highly bitter taste that stimulates the gustatory nerves in the mouth, increasing saliva production and appetite. By stimulating gastric juices to prime the stomach, many gastrointestinal problems are relieved, such as flatulence and indigestion.

Additionally, gentian's constituent gentisin has shown an anti-atherosclerotic activity, preventing endothelial inflammation and smooth muscle cell migration in the vascular system, thus promoting vascular health.

Another important aspect of gentian's medicinal properties is its antimicrobial activity, which is due to its high concentration of the chemical compounds mangiferin, isogentisin, and gentiopicrin. Moreover, gentian roots also contain substances with mucolytic action, which helps treat rhinosinusitis symptoms.

Gentian has been shown to increase collagen production, which explains its healing properties.

Choleretic properties are also present in boldo and chicory, whereas kiwi and tomato can provide similar cardioprotective benefits. 

Gentian Side Effects

Gentian is considered safe for most people when taken by mouth. However, it can occasionally cause upset stomach after being ingested, and a minor skin rash in sensitive individuals when applied topically.

Cautions

Gentian can lower blood pressure. For this reason, individuals who are taking anti-hypertensive medication should avoid gentian preparations. For the same reason, consuming gentian prior to surgery is not recommended.

Additionally, gentian tinctures and decoctions should not be taken by those suffering from acid indigestion and peptic ulcers.

Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should consult a doctor before taking gentian medicinally.

How to Consume Gentian

Quick Facts (How to Consume)
  • Edible partsRoot
  • Edible usesBeverage
  • TasteBitter

Because gentian is not often used in a culinary capacity, the most effective way of obtaining its health benefits is in medicinal forms of consumption, where the properties are more concentrated.

Remedies

Main preparations: Aperitifs, capsules, extract, infusion, powder, tincture

  • Aperitifs. Alcoholic-aqueous root extracts of gentian are consumed to help stimulate the appetite.

  • Capsules. A commercially popular form, gentian capsules are often taken to promote cardiovascular health due to its anti-inflammatory and anti-atherosclerotic properties.

  • Extract. In this potent medicinal form, gentian can improve cardiovascular health, largely due to its anti-atherosclerotic properties. Gentian extract also heals wounds faster thanks to its antimicrobial properties and collagenic compounds.

  • Infusion. One of its most popular medicinal forms, gentian hot tea stimulates appetite, as well as treating sinus infections through its mucolytic properties.

  • Powder. This digestive aid powder is thought to improve bile flow better than tincture, capsules, or tablets.

  • Tincture. Two to four drops of gentian tincture may be added to water and drank before meals. It is thought to help with poor appetite and aid digestion.

Buying

Quick Facts (Buying)
  • Where to buyBig online retailers, Specialized health stores, Online herb stores

Fresh and Dried Gentian

Fresh and dried roots, both whole and in powder form, can be found in some specialized health food stores, though they are most common in regions of widespread cultivation. It is also possible to find the herb dried through online retailers, who offer various quantities and selections.

Gentian Supplements

Many major wholesale retailers offer a variety of gentian supplements, and online outlets provide a wealth of possibilities in regards to price, concentration, and method of consumption.

Growing

Quick Facts (Growing)
  • Harvested partsRoots
  • Growing habitatEverywhere except tundra

While gentians are considered beautiful plants, they are not very common in gardens because they can be difficult to grow. Gentians grow around the world, including the Arctic, where the plants lives for only a year and grow tiny, delicate flowers. They need cool, temperate climates and may need a specific fungi in the soil in order to survive.

Growing Guidelines

  • Alpine plateaus provide the best environment, so similar conditions are ideal, with pre-planting temperatures hovering around 50°F (10°C) and later dropping between 32 - 41°F (0 - 5°C). Mimicking their natural environment will give them their best chance of survival.

  • Plants can take between two and seven years to reach flowering size, after which time the roots can be harvested for use in autumn months.

  • Since gentian seeds require darkness to germinate properly, a garden spot with partial shade is recommended.

  • Gentians require lots of moisture and a well-drained soil in order to thrive.

  • After being planted, gentian roots should not be disturbed, otherwise they will likely die.

Additional Information

Plant Biology

Gentian reaches a height of two to four feet (61 - 122 cm) and has broad, elliptical leaves underneath bright yellow flowers. The petals of each bloom are narrow and radiate from a base corolla. A taproot that averages one foot (30 cm) long and up to two inches (51 mm) in diameter provides the greatest concentration of the plant's active medicinal ingredients.

Gentiana flowers come in a wide array of colors and sizes, depending on where they are grown in the world. Members of the gentian species are classified by their oppositely arranged leaves, as well as their trumpet-shaped flowers.

  • Classification

    Scientifically known as Gentiana lutea, gentian is a member of the Gentianaceae family, which features about 87 genera and 1,600 species of flowering plants.

    The genus name Gentiana is in tribute to Gentius, an Illyrian king who was believed to have discovered the herb's tonic properties. 

  • Varieties and Subspecies of Gentian

    Gentian is not a species, but rather a genus of plants. Many members of the Gentiana genus go by the name of 'gentian,' but only Gentiana lutea, or yellow gentian, is commonly used in herbal medicine. G. scabrae, or Japanese gentian, and the Swedish G. campestris, or field gentian, are sometimes also used in bitter tonics. G. verna, or spring gentian, is an ornamental British variety with bright blue flowers. These are the most common, though there are many more.

    One gentian was discovered in South America in 2001, and the discoverers decided to give it a Harry Potter themed name: the Apparating Moon Gentian.

Historical Information

Did you know?

Gentian is depicted on the reverse side of certain banknotes printed in Albania in 2000 to commemorate the herb's namesake, king Gentius of old Illyria.

Ancient Greek and Roman herbalists, such as Dioscorides and Pliny, first documented gentian as a treatment for animal bites, digestive issues, and fever. Its common name is reminiscent of the Illyrian king Gentius, who ruled the latter territory circa 180 BCE.

Gentian medicinal uses were later expanded in the Middle Ages, when the herb was prescribed as an antidote for poison and as a metabolic enhancer. Several centuries later, British colonists brought the herb to North America, where by 1865 it had become the most popular cure for tobacco poisoning on the continent. The U.S. government officially endorsed it as a bitter tonic until 1910, and today gentian remains popular among herbalists.

Economic Data

Wild populations of gentian are now scarce, but commercial cultivation is increasingly common as renewed interest in herbal medicine creates the demand. As of 2005, 11 major European growers were generating the majority of the worldwide yield, two of which were using organic agricultural methods. Since that time, pharmaceutical generation of the herb has only continued to combine with its lucrative inclusion in bitter beverages around the world.

Other Uses of Gentian

In the beverage industry, gentian is one of the main ingredients in the American-based soda Moxie. In fact, the herb is where it gets its distinct flavor from.

Gentian has steadily gained popularity worldwide for its medicinal usefulness. Not only does this bitter herb aid in digestion and help improve cardiovascular health, but its consumption also shortens the healing time of wounds and assists in treating sinus infections. Look for selections online or try a hand out in growing it to reap its many benefits.

Bibliography

  • Medicinal Plants of the World, pp. 155, 356-7
  • The Herb Book, pp. 401-2
  • Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine, pp. 134-6
  • Phytotherapy Research, Effects of Gentiana lutea spp. Symphandra on the central nervous system in mice, 2002
  • European Medicines Agency, Committee on herbal medicinal products: Assessment report on Gentiana lutea L. radix
  • National Institutes of Health. (2009). Antimicrobial activity of Gentiana lutea L. extracts Retrieved on June 8, 2016 from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19678535
  • National Institutes of Health. (2006). Effects of gentiopicroside, sweroside, and swertiamarine, secoiridoids from gentian (Gentiana lutea ssp. Symphyandra), on cultured chicken embryonic fibroblasts Retrieved on June 8, 2016 from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16557467
  • National Institutes of Health. (2015). Phytoneering: a new way of therapy for rhinosinusitis Retrieved on June 8, 2016 from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4443571/
  • Nutrition, Metabolism, & Cardiovascular Diseases. (2016). Gentiana lutea exerts anti-atherosclerotic effects by preventing endothelial inflammation and smooth muscle cell migration Retrieved on June 8, 2016 from http://www.nmcd-journal.com/article/S0939-4753%2815%2900264-1/abstract