Field of Science

The New Centaury

In an earlier post, I described the South American flowering herbs known as the Coutoubeinae. In this post, I'm going to take a step back and look at a clade of which the coutoubeines form a part, the Chironieae.

Seaside centaury Centaurium littorale, copyright Anne Burgess.


The Chironieae are one of the major tribes of the flowering plant family Gentianaceae, including about 160 known species. Representatives are found in most parts of the world, though as part of the native flora in Australasia they do not extend past the north of Australia (some exotic species have been introduced further south). The Chironieae seem to primarily be supported as a clade on the basis of molecular data (Struwe et al. 2002). All members are herbs, from annuals to short-lived perennials. Most have an erect growing habit; members of the Caribbean genus Bisgoeppertia are annual climbers and some species of the Mexican genus Geniostemon are creeping perennials. There may or may not be a basal rosette of leaves, and a number of genera have winged stems. Flowers are solitary or borne in cymose or racemose inflorescences. These flowers are most commonly salver-shaped (that is, shaped like a flat dish) or tubular, and usually have four or five petals (some species may have up to twelve). The calyx is usually comprised of fused sepals and is unwinged and tubular. The fruit is usually a septicidal capsule (splitting along the septa between carpels), more rarely a berry.

Yellow centaury Cicendia filiformis, copyright Hajotthu.


Members of the Chironieae are divided between three subtribes that are mostly distinct both morphologically and biogeographically. As described in the previous post, the Neotropical Coutoubeinae are characterised by releasing their pollen in tetrads whereas the other subtribes shed individual pollen grains. The Canscorinae are mostly found in the Old World tropics and have white or cream-coloured flowers (less commonly yellow, pink or purple) with the calyx tube longer than the calyx lobes. The Chironiinae mostly includes found in northern temperate regions, as well as the southern African genera Chironia and probably the South American Zygostigma. Their flowers come in a range of colours—pink, yellow, purple or blue, but less commonly white or cream-coloured—and may have calyx lobes longer than the tube. Many chironiine flowers also have anthers that become spirally twisted after releasing pollen whereas those of Canscorinae are always straight. Molecular data usually support the monophyly of the three subtribes and the majority view seems to be that the temperate Chironiinae represent the sister group of a tropical clade of Canscorinae and Coutoubeinae.

Cultivated Eustoma, copyright Rameshng.


Perhaps the best known members of the Chironieae are the centauries of the genus Centaurium. Historically, about fifty species across the Holarctic have been included in this genus. However, phylogenetic studies have demonstrated that this broad sense of the genus is polyphyletic and thus it has been cut down to a group of about twenty species found in Europe and western Asia. The name 'centaury' refers to the use of common centaury Centaurium erythraea as a medicinal herb, after the legendary centaur healer Chiron. Other Old World species are now placed in the genus Schenkia whereas North American species form the genera Gyrandra and Zeltnera. The yellow centauries of Cicendia are small, filiform annuals native to Europe and the Americas that have been introduced to Australia. The rose gentians Sabatia of North America bear pinkish-purple flowers, often in lax cymes. There are also the prairie gentians of the genus Eustoma. Native to southern North America, these plants bear large, showy flowers that have become popular in cultivation. Commercially, they are labelled as lisianthus. This is not to confused with Lisianthius, a distinct genus of Gentianaceae, or Lisyanthus, a name that has been used in the past for members of yet another gentianaceous genus. Both of these belong to completely different tribes in the family, and may be subjects for another day.

REFERENCE

Struwe, L., J. W. Kadereit, J. Klackenberg, S. Nilsson, M. Thiv, K. B. von Hagen & V. A. Albert. 2002. Systematics, character evolution, and biogeography of Gentianaceae, including a new tribal and subtribal classification. In: Struwe, L., & V. A. Albert (eds) Gentianaceae: Systematics and Natural History pp. 21–309. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

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