Gentians are known
to people from North America and Europe as pretty, deep-blue flowers that
are found in the Alps and Rocky Mountains. However, gentians 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 colorful (blue, pink, red, yellow), and the true blue gentians (Gentiana)
are often grown in rock gardens.
Gentians have been used
by humans since ancient times as herbal remedies, and
taste very bitter. 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 products, skin care
products, and homeopathic remedies. In the Alps of Europe, one
gentian species is the symbolic flower together with the Edelweiss, and it
is found on many souvenirs and art work. Gentians are also considered
special in the Japanese and Pacific culture.
The gentian family contains
87 genera and over 1600 species in the newest classification.
It is closely related to other plant families that include coffee, periwinkle,
milkweed, madder, and dogbanes. Many gentians are endangered due to
destruction of their habitats. Hummingbirds, moths, bees, butterflies,
bats, and flies are some of the pollinators of gentian flowers, which show
a broad morphological diversity in their adaptations to different
pollinators. Most gentians have dry fruits and seeds that spread by
wind, but a few have berries that are dispersed by birds and
The most common gentians
belong to Centaurium (centaury), Gentiana (gentian), and Swertia
(green gentian). Commonly cultivated are also Eustoma
prairie gentian) and Exacum (Persian violet).
on the evolution of gentians (phylogeny) have
shown that gentians evolved in the tropics (Africa-South America) and
later spread to the North temperate region. The oldest gentians are
found in tropical Latin America, but the
majority of all species are now found in the temperate regions (North
America, Europe, and Asia).
How to distinguish
a gentian from similar plant families.
Gentian photo gallery
© Lena Struwe, 2002