Gentians are flowers with the blueness of lapis lazuli or blue sapphire or Lake Tahoe, whose waters range from cerulean to the cobalt blue of Chinese ceramics. The very colour of gentians is poetic.
The name of the flower is derived from Gentius, King of Illyria (180-167 BC). According to the Greek physician Pedanius Dioscorides, author of the first century AD treatise De Materia Medica, it was Gentius who discovered the plant’s medicinal properties. During the Middle Ages, gentian was often employed as an antidote to poison and the 16th century German botanist and physician Hieronymus Bock mentions the use of the root as a means of dilating wounds.
During the reign of King Gentius, Illyria was devastated by the plague. So great was the mortality among his subjects that the pious king decreed a season of fasting and prayed that, if he shot an arrow into the air, the Almighty would guide 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 honour of the good king.
In Europe and North America gentians are known as intensely blue flowers found in the Alps and Rocky Mountains. However, they occur on all continents except the Antarctic, and grow in a wide variety of habitats, from deserts, savannas, prairies, rainforests and temperate forests to the tundra. They can be small herbs that die off after only one season, shrubs, lianas, or even large rainforest trees. Their flowers are often colourful (blue, pink, red, yellow), and true blue gentians (Gentiana) are often grown in rock gardens.
The gentian family is closely related to other plant families that include coffee, periwinkle, milkweed, madder, and dogbanes. Many gentians are endangered due to destruction of their habitat. Hummingbirds, moths, bees, butterflies, bats, and flies are some of the pollinators of gentian flowers, which display enormous diversity in their adaptation to different surroundings. Most gentians have dry fruits and seeds spread by the wind, but a few have berries dispersed by birds and mammals.
The root of the gentian has a bitter taste, but it has been used by humans since ancient times in herbal remedies. In Africa, gentians are used against malaria; in South America against snake bites; in Europe and Asia as digestives; and in Southeast Asia one species is harvested for its rot-resistant timber. Gentians are also included in perfumes, weight-loss and skin care products, and homeopathic remedies. Together with the Edelweiss, one species of gentian is the national flower of Austria.
It was in the Alps, travelling through Bavaria and Austria to Italy, that the English novelist and poet D. H. Lawrence first encountered gentians. The journey was recorded in the first of his travel books, a collection of essays titled Twilight in Italy. Characteristically, Lawrence saw a passion for life in the colour of the flowers.
Much later, in 1929, with his own failing health on his mind, he wrote the poem “Bavarian Gentians”, linking the flowers to a pagan mythology of death and rebirth. One of his best known poems, it was only published posthumously and it echoes his accustomed iterative style of writing:
“Bavarian gentians, big and dark, only dark
darkening the daytime torchlike with the smoking blueness of Pluto’s gloom,
ribbed and torchlike, with their blaze of darkness spread blue
down flattening into points, flattened under the sweep of white day
torch-flower of the blue-smoking darkness, Pluto’s dark-blue daze,
black lamps from the halls of Dis, burning dark blue,
giving off darkness, blue darkness, as Demeter’s pale lamps give off light,
lead me then, lead me the way.”
In 1994 a bronze statue of the writer holding a blue gentian flower was unveiled at the University of Nottingham, England, which has assumed responsibility for uniting the literary legacy and physical locations of D. H. Lawrence’s life in the mining region where he grew up.