Welsh, Bustl y ddaer, Canrhi goch. - French, Quinquine des pauvres, Petite centauree. - German, Tausendguldenkraut. - Italian, Fiele di terra, Centauro. - Spanish, Centaura. - Illyric, Gorko Zelje, Ghereizza, Mala Simencina. - Arabic, Kantarioon?


Pentandria, Monogynia.




"Ye odour of centorie et ye smel Comforteth manys branys well, Chasyth wickyd huork [? work] owte of ye heed, Betwyn ye herbus it ye sched;" continues the manuscript from which I have so largely quoted in the preceding account. But to what plant it refers becomes very doubtful, when it proceeds:-

"His flour is whyth, his smel is sote, For every soor he may do bote".

Most certainly none of the Erythrceas are white, as indeed their name shews, being derived from a Greek word epvOpos, "red," and given in allusion to this the prevailing, though not constant, colour of the tribe; and it is as certain that one of the knapweeds, or blue bottles (centaurea) is of that hue, namely the G. cegyptiaca; yet there are but slight grounds for supposing that this is the tribe here intended, as centaury is the established English name by which old writers, in common with the peasantry of the present day, know the erythrcea. It is greatly to be regretted that an appellation tending to cause so much confusion should be retained. In the plants of which we are speaking the confusion of names is increased by the circumstances of their supposed origin. Chiron, who is appositely fabled to be the son of Saturn, or - emblematically - of time and experience, is said to have been one of the founders of the science of medicine, with its attendants, botany and surgery. Hence the name of chironia, so long given to the erythrcea, and which is still retained by a genus recently separated from the family; while the English name centaury {erythrcea) and the botanical centaurea (knapweed) refer to the same person under his mythological form of a centaur.

Both the names, centdurea and chironia, were attached by the ancients to some one plant, by means of which Chiron cured himself of the wound inflicted by a poisoned arrow from the bow of his pupil Hercules. Such perplexities are unnecessary; and as I am not amongst those:

"Who alliums call their onions and their leeks,*

I would fain see them, and whatever else can tend to impart an air of intricacy or difficulty to the study of Nature's works, done away with.

All the gentianaceae, as is elsewhere observed,† are exceedingly bitter, possessing valuable tonic qualities: and this is the case, to a remarkable degree, in the genus erythrcea. Lewis, Dr. Cullen, and Dr.

* Crabbe.

† See "Gentian".

Woodville all entertain the highest opinion of its remedial powers; and the latter, observes that it is the most efficacious medicinal bitter indigenous to our islands. Its anteseptic properties are almost equal to those of gentian, and its tonic principle quite so; while it is not unfrequently used with success in cases where quinine creates so much fever as to be injurious. Nor are these qualities of recent discovery, or partial application the plant has been long and familiarly used in rustic medicine, whence its French name of quinquine des pauvres; and it is perhaps the plant which in a long course of ages has done more good and less harm than any other popular "simple." Speaking of the blossoms of the centaury, Gerarde tells us "of some that gathered them superstitiouslie, they are gathered betweene the two ladie-daies," * but informs us that even without this observance they are good against dropsy and weakness, and a variety of other complaints, with "a peculiar vertue against infirmities of the sinews;" being also considered especially beneficial to patients of an irritable disposition, and - by analogy - to those whose constitutions are peculiarly sensitive and susceptible; and for whom, therefore, all kindly feeling will make us the more desirous to find some "balm medicinal." The older herbalists designate the plant febrifuga, from its efficacy in low fevers, and it is still largely employed in cases of incipient consumption.

* The Assumption, August 15 (Maria Himmelfaart), and the Nativity, September 8th (Maria Geburt), of old authors.

The whole plant is intensely bitter, as is intimated by its popular Italian and Welsh names, Fiele di terra and Bustl y ddaer, both signifying gall of the earth; and the medicinal principle extends throughout the whole plant, though, I believe, that in the shops it is the corymb only which is sold. The best time for gathering it is in July and August, when it is in flower, and when, consequently, its juices are most vigorous, and its secretions most abundant; so that the so-called "superstition" respecting the two lady-days is in reality little more than an assertion of the proper time for gathering it, a sort of memoria technica to prevent the careful housewife from neglecting to store it up in due season. I may add that a decoction of the plant is employed as a wash for the purpose of destroying insects, and that the "leeches" of Southern Europe employed it in the sixteenth century, for the same purposes as their descendants still do. Battista Guarini, in his "Pastor Fido," after alluding to an herb which the woodgoat seeks when wounded, adds-

* * * "e quivi.

Tratone succo, e misto,

Con seme di verbena, e la radice,

Giuntavi del centauro, un molle emplastro,

Ne feo sopra la piaga.

Oh, mirabil virtu! cessa il dolore,

Subiamente, e si ristagna il sangue;

E '1 ferro indi a non molto,

Senza fatica o pena,

La man seguendo, ubbidiente n'esce.

Tornd il vigor nella donzella, come,

Se non avesse mai piaga sofferta:

La qual pero mortale,

Veramente non fu; perocche intatto,

Quinci l'alvo lasciando, e quindi l'ossa,

Nel muscoloso fianco,

Era sol penetrate".

Nor is the beauty of the tribe disproportioned to its usefulness; and, though inferior in size, our British species yield to none of their congeners of more favoured climes in brightness and beauty. The generality of botanists affirm that we are possessed of four species. Two of these are the common centaury (E. centaurium), figured in the accompanying wood-cut, the rosy stars of which open on a stem of eight, ten, or even twelve, inches high, in all our dry pastures or open road-side spaces; and the broad-leaved centaury (E. latifolia), with its broadly-elliptical and ribbed leaves, and its dense-forked tufts of blossoms, which occurs sparingly on the coast of Lancashire, in the islands of Anglesea and Staffa, and in the county Down,* with, perhaps, some few other localities. These two plants rank, without doubt, as distinct species; but I fear that the following have no legitimate claim to the dignity, though bearing the names of the dwarf-branched (E. pulchella) and the dwarf-tufted (E. littoralis) centauries.

Though both varieties - if such they be, and I see no reason to suppose them anything else - gain much in the exquisite and gem-like beauty of their tribe by the climate or other influences which dwarf and cluster them in their growth: as is more especially the case when either occurs on the thin and sandy soil which spreads over the summit of some stern limestone and sea-laved cliff. Here, stunted up by the cold blasts of winter and the salt-spray of the sea, exposed to every storm-wind that blows, they scarcely attain to a greater height than one or two inches, and yet unfold pink and jasmine-like blossoms brighter than any they would bear in more favoured spots. The very mention of the plant seems to conjure up pictures of the lonely cliffs where the sea lies blue and dark beneath our feet, though glowing on the far horizon like molten gold; and the white-winged sea-bird sails, spirit-like, athwart the dark face of the rock far, far below us; while on the arid turf around the little centaury sleeps with quietly-folded buds in the breeze, which blows straight upon it.

Common Centaury. Erythrcea Centaurium.

Common Centaury. Erythrcea Centaurium.

* See Hooker's "British Flora".

The centaury delights in the light of the sun; and it is, I believe, the first of all our native flowers which folds together its petals when the sun begins to wane, being rarely, if ever, seen unfolded after he has passed the meridian.