Gentian - Encyclopedia

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GENTIAN, botanically Gentiana, a large genus of herbaceous plants belonging to the natural order Gentianaceae. The genus comprises about 300 species, - most of them perennial plants with tufted growth, growing in hilly or mountainous districts, chiefly in the northern hemisphere, some of the blue-flowered species ascending to a height of 16,000 ft. in the Himalaya Mountains. The leaves are opposite, entire and smooth, and often strongly ribbed. The flowers have a persistent 4to 5lobed calyx and a 4to 5-lobed tubular corolla; the stamens are equal in number to the lobes of the corolla. The ovary is one-celled, with two stigmas, either separate and rolled back or contiguous and funnel-shaped. The fruit when ripe separates into two valves, and contains numerous small seeds. The majority of the genus are remarkable for the deep or brilliant blue colour of their blossoms, comparatively few having yellow, white, or more rarely red flowers; the last are almost exclusively found in the Andes.

Only a few species occur in Britain. G. amarella (felwort) and G. campestris are small annual species growing on chalky or calcareous hills, and bear in autumn somewhat tubular pale purple flowers; the latter is most easily distinguished by having two of the lobes of the calyx larger than the other two, while the former has the parts of the calyx in fives, and equal in size. Some intermediate forms between these two species occur, although rarely, in England; one of these, G. germanica, has larger flowers of a bluer tint, spreading branches, and a stouter stem. Some of these forms flower in spring. G. pneumonanthe, the Calathian violet, is a rather rare perennial species, growing in moist heathy places from Cumberland to Dorsetshire. Its average height is from 6 to 9 in. It has linear leaves, and a bright blue corolla 1 z in. long, marked externally with five greenish bands, is without hairs in its throat, and is found in perfection about the end of August. It is the handsomest of the British species; two varieties of it are known in cultivation, one with spotted and the other with white flowers. G. verna and G. nivalis are small species with brilliant blue flowers and small leaves. The former is a rare and local perennial, occurring, however, in Teesdale and the county of Clare in Ireland in tolerable abundance. It has a tufted habit of growth, and each stem bears only one flower. It is sometimes cultivated as an edging for flower borders. G. nivalis in Britain occurs only on a few of the loftiest Scottish mountains. It differs from the last in being an annual, and having a more isolated habit of growth, and in the stem bearing several flowers. On the Swiss mountains these beautiful little plants are very abundant; and the splendid blue colour of masses of gentian in flower is a sight which, when once seen, can never be forgotten. For ornamental purposes several species are cultivated. The great difficulty of growing them successfully renders them, however, less common than would otherwise be the case; although very hardy when once established, they are very impatient of removal, and rarely flower well until the third year after planting. Of the ornamental species found in British gardens some of the prettiest are G. acaulis, G. verna, G. pyrenaica, G. bavarica, G. septemfida and G. gelida. Perhaps the handsomest and most easily grown is the first named, often called Gentianella, which produces its large intensely blue flowers early in the spring.

All the species of the genus are remarkable for possessing an intense but pure bitter taste and tonic properties. About forty species are used in medicine in different parts of the world. The name of felwort given to G. amarella, but occasionally applied to the whole genus, is stated by Dr Prior to be given in allusion to these properties f el meaning gall, and wort a plant. In the same way the Chinese call G. asclepiadea, and the Japanese G. Buergeri, " dragon's gall plants," in common with several other very bitter plants whose roots they use in medicine. G. campestris is sometimes used in Sweden and other northern countries as a substitute for hops.

By far the most important of the species used in medicine is G. lutea, a large handsome plant 3 or 4 ft. high, growing in open grassy places on the Alps, Apennines and Pyrenees, as well as on some of the mountainous ranges of France and Germany, extending as far east as Bosnia and the Danubian principalities. It has large oval strongly-ribbed leaves and dense whorls of conspicuous yellow flowers. Its use in medicine is of very ancient date. Pliny and Dioscorides mention that the plant was noticed by Gentius, a king of the Illyrians, living 180-167 B.C., from whom the name Gentiana is supposed to be derived. During the middle ages it was much employed in the cure of disease, and as an ingredient in counter-poisons. In 1552 Hieronymus Bock (Tragus) (1498-1554), a German priest, physician and botanist, mentions the use of the root as a means of dilating wounds.

The root, which is the part used in medicine, is tough and flexible, scarcely branched, and of a brownish colour and spongy texture. It has a pure bitter taste and faint distinctive odour. The bitter principle, known as gentianin, is a glucoside, soluble in water and alcohol. It can be decomposed into glucose and gentiopicrin by the action of dilute mineral acids. It is not precipitated by tannin or subacetate of lead. A solution of caustic potash or soda forms with gentianin a yellow solution, and the tincture of the root to which either of these alkalis has been added loses its bitterness in a few days. Gentian root also contains gentianic acid (C14H1005), which is inert and tasteless. It forms pale yellow silky crystals, very slightly soluble in water or ether, but soluble in hot strong alcohol and in aqueous alkaline solutions. This substance is also called gentianin, gentisin and gentisic acid. The root also contains 12 to 15% of an uncrystallizable sugar called gentianose, of which fact advantage has long been taken in Switzerland and Bavaria for the production of a hitter cordial spirit called Enzianbranntwein. The use of this spirit, especially in Switzerland, has sometimes been followed by poisonous symptoms, which have been doubtfully attributed to inherent narcotic properties possessed by some species of gentian, the roots of which may have been indiscriminately collected with it; but it is quite possible that it may be due to the contamination of the root with that of Veratrum album, a poisonous plant growing at the same altitude, and having leaves extremely similar in appearance and size to those of G. lutea. Gentian is one of the most efficient of the class of substances which act upon the stomach so as to invigorate digestion and thereby increase the general nutrition, without exerting any direct influence upon any other portion of the body than the alimentary canal. Having a pleasant taste and being nonastringent (owing to the absence of tannic acid), it is the most widely used of all bitter tonics. The British Pharmacopoeia contains an aqueous extract (dose, 2-8 grains), a compound infusion with orange and lemon peel (dose, 2-r ounce), and a compound tincture with orange peel and cardamoms (dose z-1 drachm). It is used in dyspepsia, chlorosis, anaemia and various other diseases, in which the tone of the stomach and alimentary canal is deficient, and is sometimes added to purgative medicines to increase and improve their action. In veterinary medicine it is also used as a tonic, and enters into a well-known compound called diapente as a chief ingredient.

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