Herb to Know: Valerian

Valerian, sometimes known as garden heliotrope, is native to Europe and western Asia and naturalized in much of north­eastern North America, especially in wet areas. Its erect, hollow, grooved stems can reach 5 feet tall. The basal leaves are oval and deeply lobed; the paired dark green stem leaves are pinnately divided into five to twelve pairs of toothed leaflets, the leaves progressively smaller toward the top of the stem, the leaf stalks clasping the stem. Fluffy 2- to 4-inch clusters of fragrant, 3/16-inch, five-lobed, funnel-shaped white, pink, or lavender flowers bloom in midsummer.

The name garden heliotrope comes from the resemblance of the flower’s fragrance to that of heliotrope (Heliotropium arborescens), a member of the borage family. Other parts of the valerian plant have a musky odor, which grows even more offensive on drying. (The ancients called this or another similar species “phu”, and their reaction is commemorated in the specific name of the related V. phu). Cats apparently love the smell, and they go wild over valerian in the same way that they do over catnip.

The generic name Valeriana may be derived from the Roman province of Valeria, or from Valerianus, a Roman emperor, or from a certain Valerius who first used the herb as medicine. It may alternatively come from valere, Latin for “to be well”. Officinalis is Latin for “of the storeroom”, that is, kept in stock by druggists. When you see the specific name officinalis applied to an herb, you can be quite sure that the plant has been used medicinally.

Medicinal Uses

The ancients used valerian as a diuretic, to bring on menstrual periods, and to treat epilepsy. Later, it was prescribed as an antispasmodic, calmative, and sleep aid as well as to counter ­fatigue. These later uses are most common today, and in Europe a host of preparations containing valerian are available over the counter. An infusion of the fresh or dried roots can be drunk before bedtime as a relaxing if bitter tea.

Other conditions which valerian has been called upon to treat include dandruff, coughs, constipation, cholera, and flatulence. No wonder some people have called it all-heal!

Valerian’s mild sedative ­action, by depression of the central nervous system and by relaxation of smooth muscle tissue, have been confirmed by scientific studies. Research is ongoing to determine which of several constituents of valerian are the active ones–some of them may act in combination–and the mechanism of their interaction. Overdoses may cause headache, vomiting, muscular spasm, dizziness, and depression.

Other Uses

Although the U. S. Food and Drug Administration has not approved valerian for drug use, the herb is generally recognized as safe as a flavoring for candy, desserts, baked goods, beverages, and meat products. It has also been used to flavor tobacco and to perfume soap. The flowers may be cut for fresh arrangements.

Cat toys may be made of sturdy ­fabric and stuffed with ground dried valerian roots. Cats are not the only animals to crave valerian. The intense attraction of rats for the herb has made its roots a popular bait for rat traps, and legend has it that the Pied Piper had a root in his pocket when he led the rats out of Hamelin.

Other Valerians

A startling variety of plants other than species of Valeriana also have been known as valerian. Red valerian (Centranthus ruber), also known as Jupiter’s beard, is the only one of this group that is a member of the valerian family. It has no medicinal value, but its smooth blue-green leaves are edible. It is a beautiful ornamental that is a mainstay in English cottage gardens.

Growing It

Valerian is winter-hardy in zones 3 to 10, but in parts of the South it tends to be short-lived and go dormant in midsummer. Elsewhere, it is dependable and easy to grow. Although it is an attractive ornamental in a light, ferny sort of way, valerian is quite invasive. In Herbs and the Earth (1935), Henry Beston says, “It is a rank spreader, and perhaps a little coarse, so I do not recommend putting it among the herbs. It is an excellent plant, however, for use in the left-overs of space one occasionally encounters on the frontiers of garden areas, and for establishing in half wild situations.” Frequent Herb Companion contributor Portia Meares feels the same way, listing valerian among ten otherwise “great herbs” that she’s banished from her formal herb garden.

Valerian will grow in sun or shade and in moist or dry soil. Set plants 15 to 18 inches apart at the back of the border. Cats are not likely to bother the plants unless the roots are disturbed. Keep newly established plants weeded. In many gardens, fertilizer and regular watering will only contribute to rampant growth. Some gardeners install underground partitions to contain the spreading roots. Because the plants tend to sprawl over their neighbors, staking may be necessary. Aphids can be a problem. Recent studies suggest that roots to be used medicinally are most potent when harvested in March.

Divide clumps of plants about every three years. Established valerian plants readily self-sow. To propagate valerian from seed, sow fresh seed in summer to flower the following year. Light is necessary for germination.

• The Flowery Branch, PO Box 1330, Flowery Branch, GA 30542. Catalog $3. Seeds.
• Frontier Cooperative Herbs, PO Box 299, Norway, IA 52318. Catalog free. Dried roots.
• Richters, 357 Hwy. 47, Goodwood, ON L0C 1A0, Canada. Catalog $2. Seeds, plants, dried roots.
• Story House Herb Farm, Rt. 7, Box 246, Murray, KY 42071. Catalog $2. Plants.

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