Heidi Cardenas is a freelance writer and gardener in Lake County, Illinois, with a background in human resources. She has written about gardening for various online venues and enjoys The Herb Companion’s valuable resources.
Valerian is an interesting and attractive herbaceous perennial to grow in a dedicated area of the herb garden or in wet areas of the landscape.
Used since ancient times for its sedative and relaxing properties, Valeriana officinalis, commonly known as garden heliotrope, is native to Europe and Northern Asia, and its native habitat is marshes and river banks. Valerian grows from thick rhizomes, with 2- or 3-inch-long dark green, lance-shaped serrated leaves growing from a central rosette and a 3- to 4-foot-tall flowering stem with clusters of flower buds. The central rhizome sends out smaller rhizomes, which grow new plants around the mother plant. The foliage has a stinking, putrid odor, especially when handled or disturbed, but the flowers have a fragrance similar to cherry pie. The stinking foliage is as attractive to cats as catnip, and they will roll in the plants and tear them up if given the opportunity. You can sew up tiny pillows stuffed with valerian leaves for the cats in your life to enjoy.
Valerian has clusters of small flowers that bloom from fat buds atop tall stalks.
Photo by H. Zell/Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Cultivation: Sow valerian seeds in spring when the soil has warmed up or plant seedlings or divisions. New seedlings need consistent moisture, grow slowly and need protection from faster-growing weeds. After a few years growth, dig up and separate very thick stands of plants. Established valerian seeds freely, self-sows if flowers are left on the plant and can be difficult to remove from the landscape. Unless you plan to harvest many roots, you may want to plant it in a half barrel or contain it with a sunken barrier. If you plan to harvest roots to use for herbal preparations, clip off the flower stalks to let the plant concentrate on root growth, do not use any chemicals in the garden and wait until the second year to dig up roots. Roots dug in early fall, around the end of September, have the highest concentration of essential oil.
Medicinal Uses: Valerian root is used in various forms, such as in capsules filled with the dried, powdered root and as tea made by steeping slices of fresh or dried root in boiling water. The fresh root can be put through a juicer for a liquid treatment to be taken straight or mixed with other liquids like chamomile tea or lemonade. Other medicinal uses for valerian include cough syrup made by boiling valerian root with licorice, raisins and anise seed and a headache poultice of leaves quickly blanched in boiling water and wrapped in gauze or muslin and applied to the forehead. Dr. Mehmet Oz recommends valerian as a gentle sleep aid, saying lack of sleep affects health.
Valerian Photo: Photo by H. Zell/Courtesy Wikimedia Commons