Thursday, August 11, 2011

Gentians relished

Gentians (Gentiana and Gentianella), like orchids, are alluring to botanists. There are about 9 species of gentian in the UK, but most are rare and have exacting habitat requirements, and thus restricted occurence. They are closely related to centauries (Centuarium spp.)

Gentians were named in homage to the last Illyrian king, Gentius, who was defeated by the Romans in 168BC. Here is Gentius, in a rather fetching hat, on one of his coins. (Picture from Wikipedia.)

Legend says that it was he who discovered the digestive tonic effects of gentians. Who knows? More on that later; flowers first.

A last minute reprieve from having to drive to London offered an opportunity to go to seek out autumn gentians in southern Bedfordshire. Autumn gentian (Gentianella amarella) is our latest flowering gentian and one of the more 'common', if one can ever say that about any gentian in England. A 25 minute drive found us at Sharpenhoe Clappers, an area of chalk downland, owned by the National Trust, on the northern part of the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. ('Clappers' means 'land with rabbit warrens', although I didn't see a bunny all day.)

I walked down the path (photo above) from the car park and within 5 minutes I'd found my quarry growing in short turf by the road. 
The 5-petalled flower is a dull purple mauve, today rather bleached out by the bright sunlight. 
The tubular corolla is circled at the top by a coronet of fine hairs, and the sepals are long and tapered.
Exquisite little blooms.......
I am pretty sure all the plants I found were autumn gentian and not Chiltern gentian (Gentianella germanica), it's rarer cousin (with whom it hybridizes freely).

It looks like there will be quite a display in the next week or so.

Autumn gentian used to be called bastard felwort, a colourful name, which has fallen into disuse. Felwort probably derives from the words fel (gall) wort (plant) (Grigson, 1975).

'Gall' is a clue that gentians are all intensely bitter-tasting herbs and are commonly used in modern Western herbal medicine as digestive tonics and appetite stimulants. The archetypal standard herbal bitter is Gentiana lutea (the picture below is from Wikipedia); a native of Central & Southern European mountains.

Bitters stimulate bitter taste receptors on the tongue and gastric secretions: they are sialagogues (make you salivate) and cholagogues (stimulate release of bile).

Bitters are classified according to their bitterness (obviously) and gentians are right up at the top of the list of the most bitter-tasting plants.

There are 4 main types of bitter used in herbal medicine; simple or pure (e.g. gentian and centaury), astringent (e.g. cinchona), aromatic (e.g. wormwood) and acrid or pungent (e.g. ginger) (Capasso, et al., 2003, Schulz, et al., 2004). Gentian is an ingredient in Angostura bitters; rather tasty in a Long Vodka (bitters, vodka and lemonade). I developed a penchant for Angostura bitters in Australia where a popular drink, as I recall was lemon, lime and bitters (LLB).

Today, our wild gentians are rare, and their use in herbal medicine would be reprehensible, however Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654) railed, in The English Physician....

He recommended dried gentian root for the 'biting of mad dogs and venomous beasts', liver obstruction and appetite stimulation. Soaked in wine it could soothe the weary, restore the lame, take away the discomforts of those with stitches and 'griping pains in the sides', and cure the King's Evil (tuberculosis).

It was delightful to find such a super little plant so easily and so near to home.

There were many other lovely plants on display, so continuing the purple/mauve theme, here are some other botanical highlights from Sharpenhoe Clappers....

The lovely dwarf thistle (Cirsium acaule), whose spiny leaves readily found my knees when I knelt to take photos.

It's more massive relative the gorgeous woolly thistle (Cirsium eriophorum)
Devil's bit scabious (Succisa pratensis) was just coming into flower (here with a 6-spot burnet moth). 
Delicate harebells (Campanula rotundifolia).
Lush flowerheads of greater knapweed (Centaurea scabiosa).
Clustered bellflowers (Campanula glomerata) with their deep, rich, purple flowers. 
Some small spikes of sainfoin (Onobrychis viciifolia) were putting on a last glorious show before autumn.
In the yellow hues there was ploughman's spikenard (Inula conzyae).
I've been trying to find out the etymology of spikenard in relation to this rather humble, overlooked plant. Spikenard is possibly derived from spica (an ear of corn) and narda (either named after an ancient Syrian city or from the Sanskrit, to smell). Now, true spikenard, is a plant in the Valerian family, called muskroot (Nardostachys grandiflora), the oil of which was a luxury and expensive perfume. Ploughman's spikenard (maybe a corruption of poorman's?) is a reference to the alleged aromatic qualities of its root: It is also called cinnamon-root. [I say 'alleged' as I've never pulled up the plant (nor would, unless I grow some myself) just to smell the roots.] Akeroyd (1999) informs me, that country-folk hung up the roots of ploughman's spikenard as a sort of ancient Air Wick.

Carline thistle (Carlina vulgaris) was coming into flower; here with an obliging bee practising the yoga 'cat' position.
And just so we don't all get the idea that autumn is fast approaching, here is a rather late (or early?) flowering, and clearly confused cowslip (Primula veris).
Only found the one, but it threw me temporarily.

A small (10cm) broomrape found growing in the grazed turf, close to lots of clovers, keyed out as common broomrape (Orobanche minor), which I trust is correct. [The flowers of some plants were clearly veined with purple, stamens were hairless and the stigmas were reddy-purple.]

It was a sunny but incredibly blustery day and butterflies were plentiful. I tried in vain to get photos, but in the end, just caught this one; a blue. My butterfly id skills are rather rusty, but I believe this is a male chalkhill blue.....?
Finally, this is looking back to the grassland by the road up to Sharpenhoe Clappers, where the gentians grow.
More information
Sharpenhoe Clappers from Central Bedfordshire archaeology here
Akeroyd J (1999) The Encyclopedia of Flowering Plants. Bath: Dempsey-Barr/Parragon.
Capasso F, Gaginella TS, Grandolini G and Izzo A (20030) Phytotherapy: A Quick Reference Guide to Herbal Medicine. Germany: Springer-Verlag.
Culpeper N (1770 Edition) The English Physician Enlarged. Available on Google books here and see page 149 for Autumn gentian. 
Grigson G (1975) The Englishman's Flora. Paladin.
Schulz V, Hรคnsel R, Blumenthal M and Tyler V (2004) Rational Phytotherapy. Germany: Springer-Verlag

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