European centaury has a bitter flavor profile, and is often used a substitute for gentian root in amaro.
European centaury is native to Europe and Asia, and is naturalized in North America. It grows prolifically in the wild, and in some cases is invasive. This — along with its bitter flavor – makes it an ideal substitute for yellow gentian (Gentian lutea), which, while a more traditional amaro ingredient, is endangered in the wild and fussy to grow.
The bitterness comes from the presence of iridoid glycosides in the plant, and its dried stems and leaves have been used as a digestive (and purgative) tonic.1 Herbalists sometimes combine centaurary with barberrry leaves to combat jaundice.2
As far back as the 4th century BCE, European centaury was used medicinally by the Greek physician Hippocrates.3 A modern commentary on the Antidotarium Nicolai notes that the plant was used for hundreds of years in European practice, and that “as the years passed more uses for centaury were discovered,” for everything from removing obstructions of the liver to removing freckles.4
Furthering its use was its own ubiquitiousness. Centaury was also known as weedy “backyard herb”, and because of its attractive flowers and medicinal qualities was included in many cottage gardens. It was directly referenced by Chaucer as a cottage garden plant in the 14th century.5
European centaury is a low-growing annual that likes sandy, well-drained soil; rich, wet soil should be avoided. It should be watered deeply when the soil is dry, and allowed to dry out between waterings. Part-shade growing conditions are ideal. In some growing conditions it can proliferate like a weed.6
European centaury is susceptible to rot.7
- Stewart, Amy. The Drunken Botanist: The Plants That Create the World’s Great Drinks (Kindle edition). Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 2013 (loc. 2436).
- Wheelwright, Edith Grey. Medicinal Plants and Their History. New York: Dover, 1974 (p. 81 – 62).
- Ibid. (p. 72).
- González Blanco, Marta Isabel. “An edition of the Middle English translation of the Antidotarium Nicolai.” MPhil thesis, University of Glasgow, 2018 (p. 108).
- McLean, Teresa. Medieval English Gardens. New York: Viking Press, 1980 (p. 192).
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