Centaury, not to be confused with Centaurea species in the daisy family also sometimes called centaury, represents about two dozen flowering plants in the gentian family. Centaurium erythraea, also known as European centaury or common centaury, is a branching biennial herb that is distributed throughout woodlands and meadows in Europe, western Asia, North Africa and North America.
Centaury is named in honor of Chiron the Centaur, the legendary half-man and half-horse creature who reputedly healed his own arrow wounds and later taught the herbal healing arts to Achilles, Jason, Aesculapius and Hercules. The herb is known by many interesting common names that pay tribute to its historical use, such as Dog Bite Herb and Feverwort. In some parts of Europe, centaury is affectionately referred to as Stand Up and Go Away because anyone partaking of its bitter taste in a tonic or tea is likely to do exactly that. In ancient Rome, the herb was known as fel terrae, or “bile of the earth.” The plant’s botanical name also gives rise to several alternate common names. For example, medieval Europeans, who took centum to mean 100 and aurum to mean gold, called the plant Hundred Guilder Herb. By the 15th century, however, German country folk inflated the name to Thousand Guilder Herb. The significance of this literary interpretation and the perceived value of centaury as a medicinal herb worth a thousand pieces of gold is preserved in the following translated verse penned by the 20th century Austrian novelist and poet Karl Heinrich Waggerl in Heiteres Herbarium: Blumen und Verse (A Volume of Verse, Humorous Herbarium):
Tired of my debts, I will plant some
Thousand Guilded Herb in my garden.
Thereafter I will guard my golden treasure,
Attend to arts and belles-letters,
And when I die, leave my heirs
This Croesus [wealth] of plants.
An old Pagan ritual that seeks to gain the blessing of the Goddess upon the healing herbs of the field still takes place in Germany today, although among the Catholic population in these regions the festival is known as the Day of Assumption of the Blessed Virgin. The herbs, which traditionally includes centaury, are gathered and presented in bundles of seven or nine (being magickal numbers) and are afterwards placed over the entryway to the home to safeguard its occupants from disease and mishap. Should serious illness or misfortune still befall any of the family members during the year, the bundle is burned in the hearth or outdoor bonfire to banish its source.
Centaury contains bitter compounds that make it one of the best herbs for bitter tonics and apertifs. The herb is historically used to enhance digestion and to stimulate poor appetite. Although these effects are due to ferulic and sinapic acids and other phenols, centaury also contains antioxidant compounds. Of particular interest is stigmasterol, a plant sterol that is the precursor for the synthesis of vitamin D and steroid hormones. In fact, stigmasterol was used by the Upjohn Company as the raw material with which to synthesize cortisone, which is used to treat inflammation. Recent research indicates that stigmasterol, as well as other plant sterols, may play a future role in the prevention and treatment of inflammatory disorders and certain cancers, including hormone-driven breast, ovarian, prostate and colon cancers.
Potential Side Effects
Because this herb is known to stimulate and increased production of stomach acids, it should not be used if there is a history of peptic ulcers or heartburn.
Centaury is usually taken as tea or is tinctured, sometimes in combination with other herbs.
½ cup dried centaury herb (or 1 cup fresh)
1 tablespoon bitter orange peel (Seville orange)
One 0.750 liter (750 ml) bottle of red wine
Combine all ingredients in a container with a tight-fitting lid. Allow the mixture to steep in a cool, dark place for 2-3 weeks. Strain, reserving the liquid in a clean bottle with lid. To use, enjoy a small glass before or after a meal.