Centaury: planting, care & benefits


I study landscape ecology and through my studies have discovered a love for plants. Plants are not only beautiful, but also have countless fascinating survival strategies. To bring a bit of nature into my home as well, I nurture my houseplants and herbs on every possible windowsill.

Favourite fruit: rhubarb and all kinds of berries
Favourite vegetables: onions and garlic

Even though centaury is a little plant, it stands out with its beautiful pink flowers. Centaury plants also contain many substances that have medicinal benefits.

cluster of small pink centaury flowers
Centauries not only look beautiful, but they are also used in traditional medicine [Photo: Karin Jaehne/ Shutterstock.com]

Centaury (Centaurium) has long been revered for its medicinal properties. Did you know that traditional herbalists used centauries to treat fevers? Keep reading to learn about centauries including how to grow them in your own garden.

Centaury: properties and origin

Centaurium is a genus of plants belonging to the Gentianaceae family. The genus contains around 20 species that are mostly found in the Mediterranean and can be annual, biennial or perennial. Centaury is common in the UK, although less so in the north of England and Scotland. Even so, be mindful when foraging, as some species are protected and cannot be picked.

Where do centaury wildflowers grow? They are mainly found on sunny, yet fresh meadows at higher altitudes, but they can even survive in sandy or chalky soils. Centaury flowers grow in clusters and have five petals that only open when the sun shines. They bloom from June through September and the colours vary depending on the species. Typically, centaury leaves grow on the stem as well as in basal rosettes. Confusing centaury with another plant is far less likely than mixing up the different species of centaury.

Centaury has been used as a medicinal herb for centuries, earning it a variety of names such as bitter herb, bloodwort, feverwort, earth gall and Christ’s ladder.

pink centaury in rocky terrain
Picking protected species is prohibited, as is uprooting wildflowers [Photo: Traveller70/ Shutterstock.com]

The most beautiful species

Of the approximately 20 centaury species, five can be found in the UK. They have small, beautiful pink or white flowers.

six pale pink centaury flowers
Common centaury is the better known species [Photo: Martin Fowler/ Shutterstock.com]
  • Common centaury (Centaurium erythraea): When people talk about centauries, they are usually referring to the common centaury. It is an annual or biennial plant that can survive for a short time as a seed in the earth. It can grow to be up to 50 cm tall, but it is generally much smaller. Its tiniest variety (Centaurium erythraea var. capitatum) has a maximum height of 8 cm.
cluster of five lobed centaury flowers
There is substantial debate over whether this dwarf centaury is a subspecies of common centaury or a distinct species [Photo: Svitlyk/ Shutterstock.com]
  • Lesser centaury (Centaurium pulchellum): More prevalent in Southern England and Wales, lesser centaury is an annual plant and smaller than common centaury. It grows no higher than 15 cm. Lesser centaury’s leaves only grow on the stem and do not form a rosette at the base.
sunny opened pink centaury flowers
Lesser centaury is most common in southern Europe [Photo: RukiMedia/ Shutterstock.com]

Tip: In addition to the two mentioned, there are three other native centaury species in the UK that tend to grow in coastal areas because they require damp salty soil. These are perennial centaury (Centaurium scilloides) and two protected species, seaside centaury (Centaurium littorale) and slender centaury (Centaurium tenuiflorum).

Planting centaury: sowing and the right location

Only the common centaury can be grown in the garden as the coastal species do not fare well in garden conditions. Choose a sunny site with semi nutrient-rich soil. Sow the seeds directly into the flowerbed. Keep the soil in open areas dry to fresh— centaury plants growing near shrubbery or woodlands need more moisture. In the right location, centaury will propagate itself by seed.

Sow the centaury seeds from mid-May when there is no longer any danger of frost. Press the seeds lightly into the soil but do not cover them as they need light to germinate. A mineral substrate is best for starting the seeds, such as perlite and vermiculite mixed with a little potting soil. At temperatures of around 20 °C, centaury will germinate after two to three weeks.

five yellow centaury flowers
In the Mediterranean, the centaury also comes in yellow, known as the Centaurium maritimum [Photo: arousa/ Shutterstock.com]

You can also grow centaury in a pot. Place a drainage layer in the bottom of the pot to prevent waterlogging. Then fill the pot with a mixture of 40 to 50 % sand and a high-quality soil, such as our Plantura Organic Flower Compost. This way, the water can be stored without the substrate becoming boggy. Our compost is made from natural resources and is peat-free.

Organic Flower Compost, 40L
Organic Flower Compost, 40L
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  • Perfect for all flowering plants in garden beds & pots
  • For beautiful blossoms & healthy plant growth
  • Peat-free & organic soil: CO2-saving composition

Centaury: plant care

As common centaury thrives in fresh conditions, keep an eye on the soil’s moisture to ensure that it never dries out completely. Avoid waterlogging at all costs. Spread some mulch around the plants to ensure more consistent moisture levels.

In good soils, common centaury does not require fertiliser. In pots or in poorer soil, apply some flower fertiliser, such as our Plantura Flower Food, about four weeks before it flowers. It just needs to be applied once a year to ensure beautiful flowers and strong healthy plants.

As centaury is usually an annual plant, it does not require care over the winter. However, it can tolerate temperatures as low as -12 °C and, if you want, you can spread some mulch around it to protect it and it may survive till next year.

Centaury needs fresh but well-drained soil to thrive [Photo: Unicorn555/ Shutterstock.com]

Herbal benefits and uses of centaury

You should only harvest centaury in your own garden, as some species are protected and picking them is prohibited. All above-ground parts are edible and contain bitter compounds that can lower fevers and stimulate appetite and are said to aid in the treatment of inflammation and digestive issues. Use centaury drops as a tincture or bitters or dry the plant to get the full benefits.

So, what does centaury taste like? Well, the medicinal herb tastes mostly bitter, which is not surprising given the bitter compounds it contains. Make centaury tea with the dried leaves and flowers, which is best brewed cold. Here’s how:

  • Dry the centaury plant
  • Add 1 tsp of dried herb to a cup
  • Add 250 ml of cold water
  • Leave to steep for 6 – 8 hours

The aromatic and bitter taste of centaury pairs well with salads and soups, as well as with fatty foods that are heavy on the stomach.

blue bowl of centaury tea
Use dried centaury flowers and leaves to make herbal tea [Photo: WalterWeiss/ Shutterstock.com]

As chamomile also aids digestion and has a lovely taste, why not add it to your centaury tea? Discover how to plant chamomile at home in our other article.