Saturday, August 11, 2012

Plants in France: The Grand Yellow Gentian

Gentian growing wild with
valerian in the background

Yellow gentian (Gentiana lutea) from the French alps is world renowned for its healing abilities. It has been used as medicine in Europe for 2200 years. 

We first saw this plant growing high in the French alps in a meadow filled with dandelions and buttercups. My husband’s father pointed it out to us, and, partly because he had misidentified a few plants already, I was sure he was mistaken. The non-flowering plant highly resembles false hellebore (Veratrum viride). A plant that demands respect and caution! 

Yellow Gentian (Gentiana lutea) before flowering
False Hellebore (Veratrum viride) 
See the resemblance? 
But sure enough, this tall beauty was indeed the highly revered local gentian. We found it growing throughout mountain sides in France. Later in the trip we found it growing on a volcano in central France. 

This is a perennial, herbaceous plant that grows up to two meters tall. It flowers after about three years and the roots are harvested for medicine after it is 5 to ten years old.

Because yellow gentian from France is especially revered for medicine, it has been over harvested. France has it designated as an endangered plant and it is illegal to harvest it unless you have a special permit. Mountain Rose Herbs carries gentian root from a cultivated source in France that is very high quality. I’ve been using this myself for the past year in my digestive blends.  

Gentian root is bitter, bitter, bitter. Its actions are cooling and drying. (For more information on how herbalists use the sense of taste, sign up for my newsletter in the upper left-hand column and receive an ebook on the Taste of Herbs for free!)

It is most famously used as a bitter digestive tonic and is frequently made into an aperitif, which is a before dinner drink that increases the appetite. This can be especially useful before eating a rich and fatty meal, which, of course, the French are famous for! After our visit to this beautiful meadow Xavier’s father took us bar hopping - herbalist style. We tried several different digestifs and aperitifs featuring local bitter plants, gentian among them. 
One of my favorite aperitifs that we tried in France!

Gentian is an ingredient in angostura bitters, stockton bitters and vermouth. While traveling around the Alps in France we found numerous small companies that made an aperitif from gentian. Before the introduction of hops it was used as a bitter flavoring for making beer in Germany and Switzerland

As a cooling bitter it has other uses as well. 

It’s used as a antipyretic for use during high fevers. King Gentius of Illyria, who lived from 180-67 BCE is said to have discovered gentian as medicine after this plant cured his army of a mysterious fever and today the plant continues to carry his name. 

This strong bitter is also used as a vermifuge, to expel worms or parasites from the body. 

In the mid 1800’s, gentian was mixed with licorice as a remedy to quit smoking. 

Nicholas Culpepper wrote in the mid 18th century that it was a sure remedy for the plague, but I haven’t had the opportunity to try that out yet.  

Maude Grieve recommends the following recipe as a stomach tonic to restore appetite and improve digestion: 

2 OZ. of the root,
1 OZ. of dried orange peel,
1/2 oz. bruised cardamom seeds 
quart of brandy 

Infuse for four weeks, strain and use in small doses. 

You can buy the ingredients for this recipe at Mountain Rose Herbs (and by using this banner you also help to support the writings on this blog - thank you!)

Bulk organic herbs, spices and essential oils. Sin

Do you use yellow gentian? I’d love to hear how you are using this or other bioregional gentians. 

In the spring of 2011 I traveled to France with my (French) husband, Xavier. Like most herbalists on vacation, I felt this was the perfect opportunity to see plants! In this Plants in France article series I am  bringing you photos and lore of some of western herbalism’s favorite plants from locations while highlighting French locations, history and use. This article series is based on the video series that is published at

To see other blog posts in this series click on the label "Plants in France"

Health Secrets of Plants and Herbs by Maurice Messegue is a great source of information for herbalism through a French perspective


goddess in the groove said...

I remember having this when I was in France! Thank you for posting the recipe, I am going to try it :).

irene said...

I wonder how gentian as a bitter compares to oregon grape or ocotillo. I just purchased a small batch and wonder how I could make a nourishing tea with it...a good formula? Hmm- thinking out loud maybe gentian, plantain, hawthorne and sassafras? Les fleurs du gentian sont tres belles.

Rosalee de la Forêt said...

Irene - I don't think of gentian as being nourishing. It is very cooling, eliminating and VERY bitter. Even a tiny bit added to a tea will be quite bitter. I'd love to hear what you come up with though!

In terms of comparing it to OGR or ocotillo... I mainly use OGR for acute GI distress (also for tooth abscess), and I use gentian for promoting digestion. I haven't used gentian much for acute illnesses, mainly because OGR is so much more abundant where I live. Obviously there are overlaps of the two but that is how I tend to separate them in my own mind for use. So many herbs, so little time. :) I think of ocotillo more specifically for the lymph.

Mary T. Harrington said...

How does the French Gentian compare to the North American, Gentiana andrewsi? It is found in the Northeast.

Am I Truly A Widow? said...

Oh my gosh. I gasped at the first picture and thought...oh no false hellebore nooooo. :)

Thank-you and very nice article. Would you suggest just a couple of drops prior to a meal to help with digestion? If so, then a small amount should go a long way wouldn't it?

Rosalee de la Forêt said...

Mary - I haven't used that species myself. My understanding is that most gentians are used in similar manners.

A couple of drops would probably be enough to stimulate digestion. I like to use bitters in formulas however, just to balance out the energetics. Orange peels and angelica as well as warming spices like cardamom could be used.