Centaury is a small, erect herb that is native to North Africa, Europe and Western Asia. This annual herb has also been naturalized in North America. The herb has a square stem that grows to a height of 15 cm to 30 cm (around 6-12 inches) branching significantly near the top. The stem emerges from a clump of small and broad leaves having an oval shape. In fact, the leaves at the base of the stem form a decoration. However, the leaves growing on the stem are relatively smaller, have a pale green hue, and are lance-shaped and structured in pairs at regular spaces. The stem of centaury bears bunches of striking red or pink colored flowers resembling stars and having yellowish stamens during the period between summer and middle of autumn.
Centaury belongs to the Erythraea genus and the genus name of this herb has been drawn from the Greek word 'erythros' denoting red - the color of centaury flowers. Earlier, the genus Erythraea was known as Chironia, derived from the name Centaur Chiron, an eminent personality in Greek mythology who was well-known for his talent in herbal medicines and is believed to have healed his wound sustained accidentally from a septic (poisoned) arrow dipped in the blood of hydra with herbs. In fact, the English name of the herb also originated from Centaur Chiron.
Centaury tastes extremely bitter and, hence, people in ancient times called it Fel Terrae meaning the 'Gall of the Earth'. In old English, the herb was called Felwort which also denotes the 'Gall of the Earth' and this name is applicable for all the plants belonging to the Gentian family. This herb is also believed to be the 'Graveolentia Centaurea' of Virgil, which was nicknamed 'tristia' by the Lucretius owing to the same reason - the intense bitter taste of the herb. As the bitter taste of the herb is responsible for its curative and tonic properties, occasionally centaury is also referred to as Febrifuga as well as Feverwort. Another popular name of centaury is Christ's Ladder. In effect, this herb is also known as Centaury Gentian, Red Centaury, Century, Felwort and Centory.
It may be noted here that centaury is considered to be the most effective herb among all the plants having bitter flavour and exceptional common tonics or stimulating properties. Centaury possesses the same antiseptic properties that are found in the buckbean and the field gentian.
Several species of centaury exist and among them, the centaury, scientific name Erythraea centaurium, is an annual plant having a yellow hued, tough and timbered root. The stem of this variety of centaury has a square shape, is stiff, and erect. Centaury bears light green colored leaves that are smooth and glossy with undivided borders. The leaves at the base of the herb are larger compared to the others and have an oblong or compressed shape. They are tapered at the base and rounded at the end forming a scattering cluster at the bottom of the herb. On the other hand, the leaves growing on the stem do not have any stalk and have pointed tips resembling a lance. The leaves on centaury stem appearing in pairs reverse to one another are slight intermissions.
The apex of the stem of centaury is coroneted by flat clusters or corymbs of rose-hued blossoms resembling stars. The flowers possess five bifurcated corollas. The flowers also have five stamens. It is interesting to find the anthers coiling in a strange manner once they get rid of their pollens. Although centaury and the plants belonging to the genus Gentiana have close similarities, the form of the anthers after pollination makes them distinct from each other. In fact, the similarities between these two had led some botanists in the early days to classify the genus Gentiana as Centaury Gentian or Gentiana centaurium. The flowers of centaury only bloom when the weather is pleasant and they never open after mid-day. Documenting the centaury flowers' fondness of sunlight, English botanist John Gerard has stated that these flowers bloom during the day after the sunrise and close their petals again when around the evening hours. However, occasionally the flowers having white corollas differ in this regard.
It may be noted that to a great extent, species of Centaury differ depending on the conditions where they are grown. In effect, several botanists have categorized some of the different types of Centaury. For instance, the dwarf centaury (scientific name, E. pulchella), which is a tiny plant having an extremely lean stem and just one or two flowers with stalks, more frequently only one flower and usually found growing on sandy seashores, particularly in the western region of Europe has been singled out at Newquay in Cornwall. Similarly, the dwarf tufted centaury (scientific name, E. littoralis) is an undersized plant having large leaves and blossoms packed in some sort of an apex are found on grassy sea cliffs. Another such species of centaury known as Broadleaved Centaury (scientific name, E. latifolia) has even larger leaves compared to the tufted centaury. This species of the plant bears blossoms in branched clusters, while the principal stem is separated into three branches.
Apart from the Centaury species found in England, further species grown in the southern regions of Europe, the Azores and other places bear flowers that have a yellowish or pink hue. These species are, however, generally cultivated in gardens.
Centaurium erythraea is a flowering species belonging to the gentian family and is also known by a number of common names, such as common centaury and European centaury. This species of Centaury is found in abundance in Europe as well as different regions of northern Africa and western Asia. In addition, the Centaurium erythraea has also be naturalized in different regions North America, and introduced as a new species across Australia. Centaurium erythraea or the European centaury is a biennial herb that grows erect up to a height of 50 cm. This herb develops from an undersized rosette at the base and bears a leafy, erect stem that is likely to branch out at the top. The leaves of Centaurium erythraea have a triangular form and are emerge opposite to each other on the stem, while the flowering parts of the plant are erect and come out from the stem growing parallel to it. Occasionally, the flowering parts are found intertwined with the undergrowth. Each flowering part of this species of Centaury may include several blooms. The small flowers have a pinkish-lavender hue and measure approximately a centimetre in diameter. The flowers have a flat appearance with yellowish anthers. The fruits borne by Centaurium erythraea or the European centaury have a cylindrical form and are generally of the size of a capsule.
As discussed earlier, the herb centaury has derived its name from the legendary centaur in Greek mythology named Chiron, who is believed to be an expert in herbal medications. The term erythrae too has been drawn from the Greek word denoting red and refers to the red colored flowers of the herb. The early Celts believed that Centaury brought good luck, while the herbal medicine practitioners in Scotland often prescribed the use of the herb to heal snake bites as well as other venoms. It is interesting to note that during the Middle Ages people were of the view that centaury was a supernatural herb that helped in driving evil spirits away. The flowers of centaury are etched on the tomb of the renowned English poet William Wordsworth, who was an admirer of nature. William Wordsworth considered the centaury flowers that only open up during the day time and again shuts up in the evening as the rising sun!
In old English, centaury was also known as bitterwort and the intense bitterness of the herb prompted English botanist Nicholas Culpeper to describe the herb as 'extremely healthy, but not very pleasant to taste'. Centaury belongs to the gentian family and similar to all other members of this plant family, it encloses numerous compounds having bitter flavours. These bitter compounds are beneficial for the proper functioning of the liver and the gall bladder and, thereby, stimulate the digestive process and also help in augmenting appetite. If the herb or preparations with it are taken before a meal, they help in stimulating appetite and when they are taken after meals, they are useful in conditions like dyspepsia (or facilitate the digestive process) and alleviates heartburn (a burning sensation in the stomach after eating any food). Especially, herbalists as well as the common masses in France and Italy have held centaury in high esteem for its digestive properties. Centaury is among the bitter herbs that are made use of in preparing vermouths (wines flavoured with aromatic herbs and used chiefly in mixed drinks), which is consumed as an appetizer to stimulate desire for food or work to make a slothful liver more robust.
While centaury has been a popular traditional herb, Dr. Edward Bach (1886-1936) developed it into a further alternative medication system. It may be mentioned here that Centaury is among the 38 Bach Flower Remedies that herbal medicine practitioners recommend for people who are calm, anxious to gratify others and are dictated by other people without much effort.
All part of the centaury possesses therapeutic properties and hence, the entire herb is used for some remedial purpose or the other. The entire herb is harvested during the month of July when it is just about to blossom. Following harvesting, the plant is dried for later use. The fresh centaury plants have some kind of a smell, which fades away when they are dried.
Centaury is a very beneficial herb used to heal several conditions. The herb possesses a slight aroma, is extremely bitter to taste, is beneficial for the digestive system and also serves as a tonic. The herb is beneficial for the functioning of the liver and the kidneys, helps in getting the blood rid of all impurities and is an exceptional stimulant.
After the centaury plant is dried, it is administered in the form of infusion or powder. Alternately, an extract of the herb is also used. The use of herb is widespread in curing conditions, such as dyspepsia (indigestion), sluggish digestion along with heartburn (burning sensation in the stomach) following a meal. In these instances, an infusion prepared by steeping one ounce of the dehydrated herb in one pint of water is administered to the patient. Drinking one wine glass full of herbal tea prepared with centaury thrice or four times every day before meals is beneficial for people suffering from loss of appetite. This infusion is also effective in alleviating pain caused by muscular rheumatism. Herbal medicine practitioners in Scotland often prescribed the centaury infusion for treating snake bites as well as other venoms. The herb was also popular for treating sporadic fevers for a long time and, hence, its name feverwort.
It is interesting to note that long back, centaury formed the foundation of the erstwhile popular Portland Powder that was considered to be an effective treatment for a certain type of gout. Herbal medicine practitioners often administer centaury along with barberry bark to treat jaundice. In addition, the herb has also been extensively used as a vermifuge to eliminate worms from the body. In fact, a decoction prepared with the herb is believed to obliterate the noxious substances present in our body.
External application of the crushed parts of the fresh herb is also said to be effective in healing lesions and pain.
Centaury is indigenous to central Europe, but is found in abundance in the entire region extending from Western Europe to western Siberia. Presently, the herb is also grown in North Africa and western Asia. It has also been naturalized in North America. Generally, centaury is found growing in arid, grassy locales, along the side of the roads as well as crumbly and arid slopes.
Centaury contains valeric acid, wax, a bitter principle, erythro-centaurin, which is pallid, crystalline, non-nitrogenous, reddened by sunlight, and a bitter glucoside, erytaurin.