Recently I and a small group from the Hunter Regional Botanic Gardens Herbarium spent a couple of days observing and collecting plant specimens from the Mount Royal area, situated in the ranges that border the north-western portion of the Hunter Valley, NSW. The range is an extension of the Barriginton Tops region, and includes world heritage rainforest among other botanical attractions.
View of Mt. Royal from walking track to Pieries Peak.
We didn’t actually make it to Mt. Royal itself, but did find a dazzling array of plant life all around. Pieries Peak track is a spectacular walk, near the top one side of the ridge is clothed in rainforest, the track takes you to the edge of the canopy where tops of flowering trees, vines and mistletoe can be spotted. One of the more spectacular and most highly scented specimen is the native frangipani (Hymenosporum flavum), in the Pittosporaceae family – not related to the true frangipani.
At the main picnic area numerous dwarf herbs could be seen emerging from the peaty soil, including native violets and lobelias. From a herbalists perspective there was quite a bit of centaury (Centaurium erythraea ) growing in the grassy areas. It wasn’t quite in flower, however this is still a good time to harvest the plant and make medicine. Back in the Southern Cross Farm, North Rothbury, the plants are in full flower, however this is a slightly different species, C. tenuifolium – the difference will be explained in the following herbal profile.
Common centaury, lesser centaury. Centaurium erythraea Rafn.
Centaury is an annual herb, growing to a height of 50cm, starting off as a basal rosette. Thin stems then appear bearing simple opposite leaves with a shiny surface, displaying pink flowers arranged in terminal flat-topped compound cymes. The similar species C. tenuifolium is more common at lower altitude in New South Wales. This species loses the basal rosette leaves at the flowering stage, these basal leaves are retained on C. erythraea. (Harden, 1992)
Centaury is a naturalized weed in Australia, commonly seen in fields and pastures during the summer months.
Secoiridoid glycosides: centapicrin, swertiamarin, sweroside, gentiopicroside, centauroside.
Xanthones, flavonoids, triterpenes (Bisset, 1989; Aberham et al, 2011)
Therapeutic indications are based around centaury’s bitter principles (the secoiridoids), which stimulate appetite, increase secretion of gastric juices and are beneficial in chronic dyspepsia.
Centaury is closely related to gentian (Gentiana lutea and other species) however it is a milder bitter than gentian. In Europe it is included in over 40 proprietary medicines, mainly in digestive and cholagogue blends, and some urological remedies.
In vivo studies indicate it has benefits as an antidiabetic and hepatoprotective agent with potential for treatment of non-alcoholic liver steatosis (Hamza et al., 2015).
According to British medical herbalist William Smith in his famous “Wonders in Weeds”, an infusion of the flowering tops is beneficial for languid digestion, heartburn after food or lack of appetite. He further recommends it for liver, gallbladder and spleen disorders, where he combines it with barberry bark and ginger or cayenne. For a general tonic he combines it with raspberry leaves and cayenne pepper in a tea, sweetened with honey while for gastric ulcers he combines it with astringents, cranesbill, raspberry leaves, agrimony and avens (Smith, 1977). While some authorities such as the German Commission E monographs contraindicate bitters such as centaury for stomach ulcers, physiomedical-style herbalists such as Smith promote the use of bitters and astringents, even cayenne has its adherents for treatment of ulcers.
Centaury, just harvested for tincture making.
Centaury is commonly taken as an infusion, and can be made into a simple tincture. A medicinal wine preparation recipe can be found here
There are few if any safety issues with this herb, however as with all bitters, low dose is best.
Aberham, A. et al. (2011). Analysis of iridoids, secoiridoids and xanthones in Centaurium erythraea, Frasera caroliniensis and Gentiana lutea using LC–MS and RP-HPLC. J. Pharm & Biomed Analysis 54(3), 517-525.
Bisset, NG. (ed.) (1989). Max Wilchtl Herbal drugs and phytopharmaceuticals. Medpharm, CRC Press.
Hamza, N. et al. (2015). Effect of Centaurium erythraea Rafn, Artemisia herba-alba Asso and Trigonella foenum–graecum L. on liver fat accumulation in C57BL/6J mice with high-fat diet-induced type 2 diabetes. J. Ethnopharmacology, 171, 4-11.
Harden, G. (ed.) (1992). Flora of New South Wales Vol. 3. Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney.
Smith, W. (1977). Wonders in weeds. CW Daniel, UK.