Gentian, a brightly colored ornamental plant with large golden flowers, is perhaps best known for its bitter-tasting roots, which are used to flavor vermouth and Angostura bitters. Native to mountainous regions of central and southern Europe and western Asia, gentian is cultivated commercially in North America and Europe. Gentiana, the genus name, derives from Gentius (180–167 BCE), a king of ancient Illyria said to have discovered the herb’s medicinal values.
Common Names: Gentian, Yellow Gentian
Description: Herbaceous perennial, up to 6 feet tall; bright yellow, 2-inch flowers from axils of uppermost leaf pairs; smooth, oval leaves up to 6 inches across and 1 foot long
Hardiness: To Zone 5
Flowering: July and August
Parts Used: Roots
Range/Habitat: Native to the mountains of Europe and western Asia; cultivated in Europe and North America
Gentian’s bitter flavor is so strong that it is detectable even at dilutions of 1:20,000. The herb’s rhizomes and roots contain components that stimulate the production of saliva, bile, and gastric juices, thereby improving appetite and digestion. Gentian is the major ingredient in dozens of digestive bitters and tonics taken before eating a heavy meal, particularly one rich in fatty foods. It is also recommended as a treatment for anemia and as an appetite stimulant during periods of convalescence. Gentian is said to have anti-inflammatory properties, and herbalists consider it a tonic and energizer.
Caution: Gentian should not be used by those who have gastric or duodenal ulcers, irritation, or inflammation. Pregnant women and people with high blood pressure should also avoid this herb.
Gentians of all kinds are valued for their beauty in rock gardens and informal wild gardens.
How to grow it
Gentian grows best in moist, rich soil with good drainage and bright light, although it will tolerate partial shade. Plant the seeds directly in your garden in fall, or plant crown divisions in spring. (When started from seed, gentian begins to flower in about 3 years.) If you garden in the colder parts of gentian’s range and receive little or no snow cover, protect the plants with a winter mulch of straw or evergreen boughs.
Gentian roots take as long as 10 years to reach maturity. The roots, which can be harvested in late summer or fall, must be cured by drying before they can be powdered and used. Good-quality roots are dark reddish brown, tough, and flexible, with a strong odor. They should taste sweet at first, then deeply bitter.