Birds and Nature: The Blue Gentians


During the reign of King Gentius, Illyria was devastated by the plague. So great was the mortality among his subjects, the pious king appointed a season of fasting, and prayed that if he shot an arrow into the air the Almighty would direct its descent, guiding it to some herb possessed of sufficient virtue to arrest the course of the disease. The king shot the arrow and in falling it cleft the root of a plant which, when tested, was found to possess the most astonishing curative powers, and did much to lessen the ravages of the plague. The plant from that time on became known as the Gentian, in honor of the good king, whose supplications brought about the divine manifestation of its medicinal properties.

The old herbalists called the Gentian Baldmoyne, or Feldwode. The first of these names is supposed to have been derived from the Latin valde bona, meaning very good. It was regarded as a specific for poisons and pestilence, and an excellent remedy for wounds caused by mad dogs. The term Feldwode carries the associations of the plant back to the time of Greek myths and fables. Tellus, the goddess of the earth, possessed the power to produce plants potent for enchantments. Hence, when Medea besought Tellus to evolve a plant which would give the element of renewed youth to the mixture in her caldron, the goddess produced the Gentian or Feldwode, which restored to the aged Aeson the freshness and vigor of youth.

The genus Gentiana includes nearly two hundred species distributed from boreal to tropical regions, although the majority are found in the north temperate zone. A large number of species are found in Europe, more than sixty having been reported from Russia, and there are nearly one hundred in North America. Several very beautiful forms come from the Swiss Alps, which rarely attain a height of more than three or four inches. The deep blue flowers of these diminutive specimens retain their color for years after being pressed for the herbarium, thus differing from many of the larger forms, whose corollas quickly fade.

One of the most attractive and familiar of the Gentians is the fringed or blue Gentian (Gentiana crinita). It is generally found in low grounds, along water courses or ditches, and while quite generally distributed, it is sparing of its favors, as the long peduncles that terminate the stems or simple branches, support but a single flower. The plant grows to a height of from one to two feet, and the leaves, placed opposite to each other, have rounded or heart-shaped bases attached directly to the stems, entire edges and tapering points. The sky-blue flower is bell-shaped, nearly two inches long and with the lobes strongly fringed. This is partially enclosed by a calyx, which is nearly as long as the corolla.

A much more common form, found growing in fields and woodlands, is the closed Gentian (Gentiana Andrewsii). The fanciful name, Cloistered Heart, has been given to the plant because of the story that once a fairy queen sought to elude pursuit by secreting herself in the flower of a fringed Gentian. In order that she might be more effectually shielded, the plant closed the lobes of its corolla and in gratitude the queen decorated the interior of the flower with brilliant stripes. It is in order to preserve this fairy painting that the flowers have remained closed ever since.

The closed Gentian has leaves with rough edges and a narrow base. The flowers are blue or occasionally white, closed at the mouth, forming an inflated, club-shaped corolla, with stripes on the inside. They are arranged in clusters on the ends of the peduncles or flower stems and are from an inch to an inch and a half in length. Both the fringed and the blue Gentian bloom during the autumn months and are among the most attractive forms that mark the close of the floral season.

The medicinal properties of the Gentian are obtained from the root, which, after being powdered, yields its remedial qualities to water and alcohol. As a tonic, it has been used from remote times and it is said that the Swiss macerate the plants in cold water, the sugar they contain causing fermentation which results in a spirituous liquor, bitter and unpleasant, but much used by them. The root is found as an ingredient in many of the ancient receipts transmitted from the Greeks and Romans, and is still employed in a great variety of complaints.

Charles S. Raddin.