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This page is maintained 
by Dr. Lena Struwe 
(e-mail), and hosted by
Rutgers University
, USA

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updated: 01/19/11 

What are gentians?                  Gentiana

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 mammals. 

The most common gentians belong to Centaurium (centaury), Gentiana (gentian), and Swertia (green gentian). Commonly cultivated are also Eustoma (lisianthus, prairie gentian) and Exacum (Persian violet). 

Research 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). 

More characteristics of gentians.

How to distinguish a gentian from similar plant families.

Gentian photo gallery

Lena Struwe, 2002

 

Gentian Research Network, 2002-2011.
For corrections and additions, contact Lena Struwe at struwe@aesop.rutgers.edu