Field Gentian

The lovely violet flowers of Field Gentian are a rarity. More common in the north of the UK, they are found in a small handful of places on The Lizard in late summer, including old trackways across the serpentine heaths.

Photo: Steve Townsend

Scientific name: Gentianella campestris

Conservation status: Vascular Plant Red Data List for Britain, Vulnerable; UK Biodiversity Action Plan, Priority Species

What to look for:

  • Flowers: Four lilac-blue (occasionally white) petals, 1.5 to 3 cm long. A pair of wide pointed sepals overlapping a pair of narrower sepals.
  • Leaves: Opposite, unstalked lanceolate leaves.
  • Height: 5 to 30 cm
  • Where: Scattered locations across the UK, more abundant in north. Very rare in southern England, apart from New Forest.
  • When: Flowers appear between July and October.
  • Habit: Upright
  • Similar to: Autumn Gentian, main difference is in sepal shape

The delicately pretty Field Gentian hasn’t been faring very well over the last century. It is very rare in southern England (although there is a stable population in the New Forest). Historically it always had more of a stronghold in northern England and Scotland, but even there it is declining. This isn’t just a UK problem: there has been a 90% decline in Scandinavia since the middle of the twentieth century.

It is hanging on in a few places, however, and The Lizard in Cornwall is one of them: it has been found there in a small handful of locations. The reasons for the overall decline probably lie in a reduction in low-level disturbance and changes in land management.

On The Lizard, you can see it on bare earth over the serpentine, along the old trackways that criss-cross the heathlands. This plant likes neutral or slightly acidic, infertile ground.

Field Gentian is biennial, forming leaf rosettes in its first year and flowering and producing seed in its second year, providing a late-summer source of food for bees and butterflies.

Did you know…?

…The Gentian family of plants was named after Gentius, King of Illyria from 180 to 167 BC, who is reputed to have used the plants for various medicinal purposes.

…Field Gentian was one of a number of bitter-tasting plants used to flavour beers before Hops began to be used instead.

More information and references:

Pearman, D.A. (accessed 25/8/2014). Species account: Gentianella campestris. Botanical Society of the British Isles,

Peterken, G., 2013. Meadows. British Wildlife Publishing Ltd., Dorset.

Rose, F. and O’Reilly, C., 2006. The Wild Flower Key, 2nd edition. Frederick Warne, London.

Stace, C., 2010. New Flora of the British Isles, 3rd edition. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Published: August 2014
Author: Amanda Scott
Photos: Steve Townsend