And perhaps I’ll forget the roses only for that gentian,
Blooming on the edge of the field like a precious gem.
Gentian root liqueur brings with it the crisp air of 1000 to 2500 meters of altitude or higher, sealing in the Alpine purity, freshness, and clarity. With its splendid blue coloration, the gentian is arguably one of the most beautiful herbaceous plants in existence. The blue petals are the most common, but there are about 400 varieties throughout the world that bloom in a range of colors, including white, red, violet, and orange.
Though, not just a pretty face, gentian is an herb of incredible medicinal value. Its therapeutic qualities have been noted since ancient times. The Greeks used it primarily as a diuretic and laxative, while the Romans used it in treatments of intestinal upset and for its vermifugal properties. Throughout Europe, however, it was often used as a fever reducer.
Although gentian had long since been in use, its first descriptions arose from Pliny the Elder in 180 CE. According to this ancient Roman writer and naturalist, Gentius, who was the last King of Illyria (which corresponds to the western part of the modern-day Balkan Peninsula), was captured by the Roman army and brought to Italy. He used the root, macerating and boiling it, to treat a high fever. The herb bears his namesake in homage to him.
Seeing the palliative quality of this herb throughout the course of the centuries, there was an excessive harvest of the root that had brought it to the brink of extinction—severe enough for it to be included in the protected plant species of the world. Today we can find varieties throughout all the temperate regions of Europe, Asia, America, and some species even make appearances in Northern Africa, East Australia, and New Zealand. In Italy, gentian grows in the Alpine region and the Apennines. Specifically, in Abruzzo.
Properties and Contraindications
Gentian is known for its multitude of positive effects. It has digestive, astringent, and anti-fermentative properties. It stimulates the appetite and the production of bile in the liver. It is a diuretic, promoting the elimination of toxins, and possesses antipyretic properties, stimulating and reinforcing the immune system. It also combats anemia and is an excellent remedy against infections, thanks to the elevated content of bitter substances that stimulate the secretion of saliva and gastric juices.
The infusion prepared with the roots or the mother tincture, is even useful as a skin salve, especially for oily and seborrheic skin.
It is especially useful as an aromatic digestive, albeit with a bitter aftertaste. The dried roots can be used to prepare a decoction that assists with both physical and mental fatigue. Alternatively, it is also possible to find the mother tincture in an herbalist’s shop, which can be used as a tonic to detoxify the body or improve gastric function and stimulate digestion.
However, take care not to use gentian excessively, as it can cause hyperacidity, gastric reflux, nausea, gastritis, and other problems connected to the gastroesophageal tract.
Not Just Liqueur
In addition to its aesthetic and medicinal appeal, gentian has gustatory uses as well. The bitterness of gentian root is often used as a base for flavored liqueur.
When we talk about gentian liqueur, it is important to note that there are two Italian regions known for its production: Abruzzo and Trentino Alto Adige. The former is the only one to have received the designation of being protected land. In Abruzzo, there is an ancient pastoral tradition that has observed the harvest of this herb for its production into liqueur and infusions and for putting the wine together with the alcohol to avoid turning it to vinegar. Common tradition also in the north of Italy, with the difference of using grappa as a base.
The art of making liqueurs at home is classically Italian. This one in particular follows the Abruzzian tradition—the land in which the original recipe has been passed down from generation after generation—with numerous varieties of gentian-infused alcohol, some even with the addition of juniper berries, bitter orange peel, or cloves.
How to Make Gentian Liqueur at Home:
- 1 liter of white wine
- 1 bottle of 95% alcohol
- 0.08 lb of dried gentian root
- 1/2 stick of cinnamon
- 8 cloves
- peel of one organic lemon
- 0.66 lb of sugar
- 1 liter of water
- Ginger and other spices, e.g., 10 coffee beans or 1 teaspoon of grated nutmeg
In a container, preferably tinted glass, mix the dried gentian roots, lemon peel, and the spices into the alcohol (white wine and the bottle of alcohol). Let sit in a dark, cool, dry place. For the next fifteen days, shake the mixture daily. After this, strain the mixture. Dissolve the sugar in water, add the solid portion of the infusion to the syrup, then bring everything to a boil for 20 minutes and strain again. Macerate the solids in the alcohol infusion and blend well. Finally, pour the results into a bottle and let the liqueur sit for one month before drinking.
Stories and legends often come together, giving us anecdotes and curious tales of the use of this plant. Some say, for example, that farmers had a tradition of putting a piece of the gentian root in their shoes to combat sagging skin and sweating of the feet. On the other hand, the leaves were used to wrap butter, giving it a particular aroma, so that some of the locals came to know it as “butter-leaves.” It seems it was used also for meteorological purposes. Counting the circles formed on the leaves after it flowered predicted the arrival of the first snow or its abundance.
Additionally, the roots were administered to children to be held in the mouth to assist in combatting fever. Other popular legends even include its use for diminishing freckles.
In the end, whatever you use it for, gentian is a versatile herb with a colorful history.