Centaury is a flowering annual herb native to Africa, Asia, and Europe, and which grows wild in many places in North America. It was named after a centaur in Greek mythology who was reputed to have an extensive knowledge of healing herbs. Centaury’s botanical name is Centaurium erythraea, and it belongs to the gentian family. Flowers shaped like stars blossom in pinkish to lavender colored clusters, and the mature plant can reach a height of 12 inches (30 centimeters). It is known for its bitter flavor, which in the past earned it the nickname “gall of the earth.”
The same constituents that give centaury its bitter taste also provide its medicinal properties. These include the ability to aid digestion by increasing the secretion of digestive juices in the stomach and the production of bile. The whole herb can be used medicinally.
Centaury acts as a tonic for the stomach and liver and can relieve indigestion, gas, bloating, nausea, constipation, and other gastrointestinal complaints. It has the ability to remove toxins from the gallbladder and liver and to purify the blood. Centaury has been used to treat gallbladder disease, hepatitis, liver disease, and jaundice.
It also has antiseptic properties. The crushed leaves can be used as a poultice to help heal wounds, and a cooled infusion of the leaves can be used to wash cuts, ulcers, and sores. This infusion has also been used to treat acne.
Drinking several ounces of the tea three to four times a day has been known to stimulate a failed appetite and relieve the symptoms of arthritis. It is diaphoretic, which means it can increase perspiration. This effect can help lower fevers, giving the herb the nickname feverwort. Centaury has also been used as a vermifuge to expel worms.
The herb has a long history of use as a folk medicine. At one time, centaury was so popular that it was the panacea recommended for every affliction. It was used to treat animals as well as people, and was added to animal feed to treat sickly and malnourished livestock. The plant was also used to kill head lice and heal snakebite. It was commonly combined with barberry to relieve the pain of gout.
Women used centaury to encourage the onset of delayed menstruation to relieve cramps. It has also been used to soothe colic and treat diabetes. Some believe that the herb can improve metabolic disorders and promote weight loss.