Centaury (Centaurium Erythraea / Erythraea Centaurium) Overview, Health Benefits, Side effects

Centaury (Centaurium Erythraea / Erythraea Centaurium) Overview, Health Benefits, Side effects

Centaury (Centaurium Erythraea / Erythraea Centaurium) Overview

Centaury (Centaurium Erythraea / Erythraea Centaurium) other names: Bitter Herb, Centaura Menor, Centaurea Menor, Centaurium erythraea, Centaurium minus, Centaurium umbellatum, Common Centaury, Drug Centaurium, Erythraea centaurium, Érythrée, Lesser Centauru, Minor Centaury, Petite-Centaurée, Petite Centaurée Commune, Petite Centaurée en Ombelle, Petite Centaurée Rouge.

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 (Centaurium Erythraea  Erythraea Centaurium) Overview, Health Benefits, Side effects
Centaury (Centaurium Erythraea  Erythraea Centaurium) plant

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. Centaury 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 centaury 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 centaury 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 of centaury 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.

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.

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!

Centaury (Centaurium Erythraea  Erythraea Centaurium) Overview, Health Benefits, Side effects
Centaury (Centaurium Erythraea  Erythraea Centaurium) flower

Centaury belongs to the gentian family and similar to all other members of this plant family, centaury 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 centaury 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.

Centaury is indigenous to central Europe, but is found in abundance in the entire region extending from Western Europe to western Siberia. Presently, the centaury is also grown in North Africa and western Asia. Centaury 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 (Centaurium Erythraea / Erythraea Centaurium) Health Benefits

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 centaury is dried for later use. The fresh centaury plants have some kind of a smell, which fades away when they are dried.

Centaury is used for loss of appetite (anorexia) and upset stomach (dyspepsia).

Centaury (Centaurium Erythraea  Erythraea Centaurium) Overview, Health Benefits, Side effects
Centaury (Centaurium Erythraea  Erythraea Centaurium) picture

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 centaury 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. Herbal medicine practitioners in Scotland often prescribed the centaury infusion for treating snake bites as well as other venoms. The centaury 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 centaury has also been extensively used as a vermifuge to eliminate worms from the body.

External application of the crushed parts of the fresh herb is also said to be effective in healing lesions and pain.

In beverages, centaury is used as a flavoring.

Centaury (Centaurium Erythraea / Erythraea Centaurium) Side effects

Centaury is safe when used in food amounts and seems safe for most people when used in medicinal amounts.

Pregnancy and breast-feeding: Centaury is safe for pregnant and breast-feeding women in food amounts. But larger medicinal amounts should be avoided until more is known.