French, Gentiane. - German, Enzian. - Italian, Genziana. - Spanish, Genciana. - Illyric, Vladislavka, Trava.
Coleridge has used, with happy observation, the effect produced by the heaven-like blue of the little gentian amidst the grander components of such Alpine scenery as he describes:-
"Ye ice falls! ye that from the mountain's brow,
Adown enormous ravines slope amain------
Torrents, methinks, that heard a mighty voice, And stopped at once amid their maddest plunge! Motionless torrents! silent cataracts! Who made you glorious as the gates of Heaven Beneath the keen full moon 1 who bade the sun Clothe you with rainbows? who with living flowers, Of loveliest blue, spread garlands at your feet? God! let the torrent, like a shout of nations, Answer! and let the ice-falls echo, d! God! sing ye meadow streams with gladsome voice! Ye pine-groves with your soft and soul-like sounds! - And they too, have a voice, yon piles of snow, And in their perilous fall shall thunder God!" and elsewhere; - "Ye living flowers that skirt eternal frost;" words which are, in the strictest sense, literally true. For in no part of the world does the bright blue gentian smile so brightly as on the verge of the snow-line in our frozen Arctic regions, or, in the chilly Terra del Fuego; where the mountain crest that slept, but yesterday, shrouded in its mantle of snow, feels to-day the glad influence of the gentler spring; where the same ray that dissolves the snow of winter calls into life a thousand blossoms, dwarfed indeed, and nestling closely to the earth in which they so lately rested, yet bright-eyed, and clear-coloured, beyond anything ever witnessed in more favoured climes.
There is an inexplicable charm in this "Spring of the northern land. It warms not there by slow degrees, With changeful pulse, and uncertain breeze; But sudden on the wondering sight Bursts forth the beam of living light, And instant verdure springs around, And magic flowers bedeck the ground."*
FIELD GENTIAN. Gentiana campestris.
London; Published by John Van Voorst. 1858.
And yet, with all the magic of its beauty few of us would exchange for it the less constant spring-tide of our own land;- .
"Wie Feld und Au So blinkend im Thau! Wie Perlen-schwer Die Pflanzenumher! Wie durchs Gebusch Die Winde so frisch!
* W. Herbert, in "Hegla".
Wie laut im hellen Sonnenstrahl Die suissen Voglein allzumal;"* when the blossoms, and the tender green leaves come stealing so timidly forth, and the sunshine gladdens the heart, and fills it with that nameless feeling of care-free happiness which the Welsh language expresses by the single word, moeldesota, signifying "to be merry on account of the sunshine." It is then (to borrow a beautiful expression from the same language) that despite every material cause for depression, we feel gwynfydedig; that is, we feel the world is white to us; we are happy, we are in a state of beatitude, †sensible of the power of enjoyment - which finds food for itself in that calm appreciation of little things, which after all constitute so great a part of our earthly happiness. And who is there amongst us who would not rather be that governor of Pisa, who employed the guard of soldiers at his command to keep night-watch over the flower-covered jasmine which he considered his greatest treasure, than that haughty Guise whose dislike to the rose was as unconquerable as his human sympathies were nar-row.‡
The old English name of fel-wort evidently takes its name from the bitterness of the whole plant; though, with an etymological zeal strongly pervading our ideas, we might, perhaps, be tempted to derive it from fel, a hill;* so peculiarly is the gentian a mountain plant. But, in the words of the poet:-
† Thus we say gwyn eifyd, "happy is he," that is. "white is the world to him." ‡ See page 240.
" Why so far excursive, when at hand?"
For we here have the simpler, and without doubt, the truer signification. Bitterness is the characteristic of the whole plant, and, indeed, of the whole family of the gentianece - a resinous bitter, highly increased in Arctic and Antarctic climes, which also give so large a size, and so bright a hue to the blossoms of the gentian.† This bitterness points out its valuable tonic properties; and we are not surprised to find that not only is the gentian an antiseptic, arresting animal decay, but also that it is a tonic of very valuable quality; as it does not, like many others, act (except in certain combinations) as an astringent. It is one of the most successful medicines used by our rustic practitioners; and one of those which has, probably, done less harm than many others.‡ A very favourite form in which it is administered by the English peasantry is as an ingredient in the so-called Stockton bitter, in which this plant, and the root of the sweet-flag (Acoris cdlamis), play the principal part.
It is, however, almost needless to say, that a simple infusion of the plant, whether dried or fresh-gathered from the fields, is at once far more efficacious and far safer.
* As in Hells-nab-fel, and other mountains in Northern Britain.
† This is the case with the secretions of all plants of very high latitudes.
‡ See Centaury, page 286.
Two well-known preparations of the gentian are exported from the Himalaya Mountains. These are yielded by the same plant, the G. kurroa; the root being sold under the name of kurroa, and the dried leaves under that of cheretta.
Foremost in the list of beauty displayed by our English gentians must stand the glorious azure-lipped gentianella (G. acaulis), so well known in our gardens, but whose claims to be indigenous rest on a somewhat dubious footing. Such, at least, is the general opinion on the subject; but I think that if it be candidly and carefully examined, the claim will be found to hold good. Or, if it be not admitted, a very large proportion of plants must be expunged from our Floras.
Scarcely less beautiful, and, if possible, even brighter, is the exquisite little snow-gentian (G. nivalis), which compensates, by the dense and mosslike tufts of its blossoms, for its inferiority in point of size to the gentianella. It grows, as its name implies, on our loftiest mountain ranges, as Ben Lawers, and Snowdon, but is far better known as a native of the Alps and Pyrenees, than of our land. This is the plant described in the lines already quoted.
Our remaining blue gentian is the marsh-gentian, or, the so-called, Calathian violet (G. pneumonanthe), which is quite different in character from the others. Its flower-stalks grow to a height of six, ten, or even fourteen inches, and are branched, and spiked with many blossoms, faintly, very faintly, reminding us of some of the species of campanula, though a certain rigidity in the outline, the twisted and somewhat spiral markings of its many foldings, and the beautiful green tinting displayed on the exterior of its throat, serve to distinguish it, even at a distance. Unlike the two last-named species, the marsh-gentian is found in many accessible localities, abounding in certain districts in moist meadow land; as, for instance, in Norfolk, Lancashire, Cheshire, etc.
Our other gentians, of which one is given in the accompanying engraving, are purple; and, though beautiful little plants, have not that brilliancy of hue which gives so glorious an effect to those before mentioned. They are the little field-gentian (G. campestris), which occurs sparingly on mountainous pastures in Western Britain, and which is, at first sight, with difficulty distinguished from the autumnal gentian (G. amarella), though a difference, well-defined and constant, is presented in the form of the calyx, which, in the G. amarella, has its segments equal, while the G. campestris has the two outer segments, which are flat and upright, twice as broad as those between them. The G. amarella loves calcareous soils; and both these plants frequently exhibit flowers which are more or less double; a sort of deformity produced where the plants have been grazed down by sheep, or other animals.