Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Centaurea - Stars In Your Garden

Centaurea montana 'Amethyst In Snow'
"What ridge of the pasturing woodlands must I traverse to summon old lifebringing Cheiron to help your wound? Or where can I find medicines, the secrets of Paieon the Healer's painassuaging art? Would that I had what they call the herb centaury, that I might bind the flower of no-pain upon your limbs, and bring you back safe and living from Haides whence none returns! What magic hymn have I, or song from the stars, that I may chant the ditty with Euian voice divine, and stay the flow of blood from your wounded side? Would I had here beside me the fountain of life, that I might pour on your limbs that painstilling water and assuage your adorable wound, to bring back even your soul to you again!" Nonnus, Dionysiaca, Book 35, line 60ff.

Raised in a family of homoeopathic physicians, I traversed Appalachian woodlands with them in search of botanical remedies. "Boys, now, boys," Pop would say with weighty pauses as he stopped us to probe herbs with his staff, "this is...." Then he'd tell us of their medicinal properties. For him and his sons, the doctors, the hikes were born of compassion for their patients.

For us grandchildren, they were adventures. I do remember hearing of centaury, Centaurium, or maybe it was Centaurea.

"Lifebringing Cheiron", mentioned by Nonnus, was a seminal figure in the ancient Western world for his mastery of medicine. Pliny the Elder wrote in his Natural History that Cheiron actually discovered botany and pharmacy. Cheiron (aka Chiron, Kheiron), however, was not a man, but a centaur - half man and half horse. A different kind of centaur, he was more intelligent and not given to drunkenness like the rest.

Cheiron was sired by Kronos (aka Saturn), a titan of mythical proportions. Kronos was romping with a nymph, Philyra, when his wife/consort Rhea showed up unexpectedly. Kronos quickly turned himself into a stallion to avoid recognition, and proudly galloped away. Philyra, pregnant and abandoned, gave birth to Cheiron. Stung by the ignominy, Philyra begged Kronos to turn her into a linden tree (Tilia spp), which he did.

Though (or perhaps because) he was half horse, Cheiron was lucky. He lived. Kronos ate most of his other sons.

Cheiron, not hobbled by his circumstances, turned out well. He became a master of the healing arts, and taught others. Consequently, we've all benefited. Asclepius, one of Cheiron's most accomplished students, traveled to Cos where he inspired Hippocrates. There Hippocrates established a medical school from whence healing knowledge was disseminated, passed down through the ages, eventually studied by my grandfather and father, and here I am telling you about it!

Cheiron has been immortalized in the names of various plants. Centaurea is one of them. There are about 40 species and subspecies of Centaurea thriving in North America, some of them naturalized from Europe. Of those, nearly half are commercially available as ornamental plants. The rest are either not desirable or heartily despised.

As you may have guessed, Centaurea was so named because of purported medicinal qualities. C. montana is sometimes use in Europe as an eyewash. The dried flowers made into tea are also said to break up mucous congestion, cleanse the kidneys and generally de-toxify the body, and act as astringent mouthwash.

You may recognize some of the common names: Bachelors Button, Basketflower, Centaury (a name mostly associated with Centaurium, which is a different genus), Cornflower, Dusty Miller, Knapweed, Mountain Bluet, Starthistle.

Hardiness varies according to species. Among the most popular are C. cineraria and C. cyanus. Not cold hardy, they are grown as annuals or tender perennials. C. montana, one of my favorites, is a hardy perennial, thriving in USDA climate zones 4 through 8. The many star-like flowers remind me of a constellation in the garden.

Centaurea prefers average, well-drained soil with pH ranging from 6.1 to 7.8. Choose a site in full sun or partial shade. Take a soil sample to your nearby Cooperative Extension Service office for analysis. Follow the recommendations.

If the soil is compacted, till to a depth of 10 inches. Add amendments, if necessary. Remove all traces of weeds. Seeds of C. cyanus may be sown in rows or gently sprinkled on the surface and lightly covered. Space container grown C. cineraria 12 inches to 18 inches apart. Space C. montana 18 inches to 24 inches apart. Water the plants in the pots, and allow to drain. Plant no deeper than they grew in the pots; in other words, don't bury them. Gently water as  you back-fill with soil. 

C. cineraria is usually grown for its foliage. C. cyanus and C. montana are grown for their flowers. All are reasonably drought-tolerant and deer-resistant. Use them for xeriscaping, butterfly gardens, cut flowers, mixed annual and perennial borders. Many gardeners like to establish theme gardens. Centaurea is perfect for heirloom plant collections and medicinal gardens.

You might be wondering what became of those characters I mentioned before. Here's a brief summary.

Asclepius knew too much, having discovered the secret to immortality. Zeus killed him with a thunderbolt to keep the secret from getting out.

Cheiron died of a poison arrow in the foot, and now resides in the heavens as the constellation Sagittarius.

The doctors are deceased, except for one who is alive and well at 95 years old.

Hippocrates died. Physicians recite his Oath.

Kronos (Saturn) is still ticking.

Philyra is still sung and danced about.

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