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Friday, June 16, 2017

Common Centauries

Mountain Pink, Zeltnera beyrichii

As members of the Gentian Family, there are many species of Centaurium worldwide, and three of them are native right here in Central Texas.  The genus was named after the centaur Chiron, famed in Greek mythology for being a great healer through his skill in using medicinal herbs. Herbalists today still use the extract from certain species in this genus, commercially often called ‘stomach bitter’, to aid in the process of digestion.  More recently, molecular studies have reclassified the genus, and the species that belong to the ‘Texas group’ have been renamed Zeltnera.

Mountain Pink (Zeltnera beyrichii), also called Meadow Pink, Catchfly, or Quinineweed, is an annual herb less than a foot tall and best described as a neat bouquet of small, pink flowers. Blooming May through July, Mountain Pink sprouts up like an inverted cone 8 to 12 inches high, on rocky hillsides, limestone outcrops, and along gravelly roadways.  Its leaves are threadlike and are held below the multiple 0.5 to 1.0 inch wide showy pink five-petaled blooms that provide nectar for moths, butterflies, bees, and other insects.  Pioneers used this plant as a medicinal plant to help reduce fevers, which is the origin for one of its common names.

Lady Bird’s Centaury, Z. texensis

Lady Bird’s Centaury (Z. texensis) is named in honor of Lady Bird Johnson, and is a delicate plant 3 to 7 inches tall with an open, branched habit.  Found in dry, grassy areas of the Edwards Plateau and Blackland Prairies, its leaves are linear and shorten in length on the upper part of the plant. Smaller than the other Centaurium species, its light pink five-petaled flowers bloom June to August, and are only about 0.25 inches wide.

Rosita, Z. calycosum

Rosita (Z. calycosum), also called Shortflower Centaury, Buckley Centaury, or Arizona Centaury, prefers moist, open areas in otherwise dry habitat, along streams, on hillsides, and in prairies and meadows with intermittent drainages.  An erect, branching plant up to 18 inches tall, it has larger, oblong leaves at the base and smaller linear leaves on the uppermost stems. Blooming May to July, the rose-pink five-petaled flowers are 0.5 to 1.5 inches wide, occur in an open array along the stalks, and have distinct, spirally curved, yellow pollen-producing anthers.  Of all three species in our area, this one is a bit less common.

Long used in herbal medicine, today’s science has discovered another interesting pharmacological feature of plants such as Centaurium in the Gentian family.  They naturally produce organic substances called xanthones that exhibit antioxidant properties, which are thought to inhibit microbial infection, inflammation, proliferation of cancer cells, and the aggregation of platelets, among other benefits.  Not a bad resume for these common centauries!