Many common, easy-to-grow herbs and plants have beneficial properties. Ground basil can be added to toothpaste for fresher breath. Mullein flowers in olive oil can treat chapped lips. Raspberry leaves soothe sunburn. Homegrown plants like these can improve everyday wellness, and by growing them you can become more self-sufficient and take charge of aspects of your health. Backyard Pharmacy (Quarto Publishing Group, 2015) by Elizabeth Millard gives detailed information for the best plants to grow in your garden, or even indoors, to treat daily ailments. Complete with color photographs of the herbs, this book provides an overview of preparation methods, growing needs, harvesting tips, storage, and scientific research about each plant. With this as your guide, you can truly turn your yard or garden into a pharmacy.
You can purchase this book from the Mother Earth News store: Backyard Pharmacy.
One of the best-known herbal sedatives, valerian was used during both World War I and World War II to treat battle-related stress. Before that, the perennial flowering plant was used to make perfume extracts in the 16th century, and was favored in ancient Greece for treating ailments of the urinary tract, liver, and digestive system. Valerian was once used as a spice, and its roots added to stews or softened enough to be added to salads. Although it’s not consumed much (if ever) in the US as an edible, the herb continues to be added to dishes in other parts of the world. In addition to medicinal and culinary uses, valerian was once thought to bring squabbling couples back together, and acted as a major ingredient in love spells.
Valerian is the ultimate chill-out herb, and has been noted as one of the most effective plants for lowering blood pressure. As with many herbs, valerian shouldn’t be taken indefinitely; instead, use for a couple weeks, then take a week off from the herb before resuming use.
Here are a few ideas for your Rx/medicinal preparations:
• For a general calming effect, make a tonic wine by using about 2 ounces of the dried root; crush and add to 1 cup of dry white wine, then steep for a month, gently shaking occasionally. Use up to three times daily or as needed.
• To relieve PMS symptoms or assist with insomnia, create an infusion by crushing a teaspoon of fresh valerian root and soaking in a cup of room-temperature water for at least twelve hours. Strain, and then drink a small cup in the evening.
• To create a compress for drawing out a splinter or bee stinger, make the infusion double strength and soak a clean cloth in the liquid, and then apply to the affected area.
A towering perennial, valerian can grow to about 5 feet tall and often sports white flowers that provide a happy space for bees and butterflies. Because of that, it’s advisable to plant near vegetables and fruits that can benefit from pollinators, such as melons, tomatoes, or cucumbers. Its robust size also makes a nice backdrop to an ornamental landscape, and it trellises well on fencing.
The standard variety of valerian is called simply “common valerian,” or “official valerian” in reference to its botanical name. This type is native to Europe and temperate parts of Asia, and is remarkably hardy, down to -20 degrees Fahrenheit. Although other varieties are sometimes mentioned, finding seeds for these is difficult, and it’s much easier to secure the familiar, well-known variety.
Although valerian can be grown from seed, germination can be tricky, so it’s best grown through root division. Dig up a small amount of an existing plant, leaving the majority of the roots in place, and transplant into a your garden space after loosening the soil. Place transplants into the soil carefully, and water thoroughly to help reduce shock. Mulch around the roots to assist with moisture control.
If you prefer to give seeding a try, start the seeds indoors in a small container (about 2 inches or so) first, which will keep the roots warmer, aiding in germination. Cover with a very thin layer of vermiculite, a silicate that’s fluffy and pebble-shaped. It helps to promote fast root growth, anchor young roots, boost moisture retention, and assist germination. Look for horticultural vermiculite, as opposed to other types that are used for shipping chemicals or enriching concrete. In the case of valerian, it helps to let light in for the seeds, but still protects the top layer of the soil during the germination process.
As the plant grows larger, transfer to a larger container (at least 6 inches deep) so the roots can establish more firmly. Transplant outside in early spring, after the last frost.
Use valerian seeds as soon as you can; they don’t store for long and germination suffers if you’re using seeds that are left over from the previous season.
Once valerian is established, maintenance is minimal. It’s best to mulch around the roots each spring and autumn so that roots are well protected.
Keep in mind that cats love valerian, usually as much as catnip, and some ancient herbalists would gauge a plant’s potency based on how eager cats were to destroy it. If kitties are becoming an issue, consider some fencing or netting, but in general, if your cats are rolling in the valerian, it means you have a good crop.
Harvest and Store
Although valerian leaves can be dried and used, the part of the plant most commonly used is its potent roots. Wait till after the plant’s flowering and summer stages and harvest part of the roots in late autumn of its second year, once the greens have died back and the plant’s energy is going into the roots to prepare for winter. Be sure to leave enough roots to keep the plant healthy for the next season — that’s not too difficult since even a small amount of the roots can be potent, and it only takes about a teaspoon of ground roots to make an infusion.
During the autumn, you can use fresh roots, as long as they’re thoroughly washed and allowed to dry. For preparations during the winter, let the roots dry in a well-ventilated area and store in an airtight glass jar in a cool, dark place.
One important note: valerian root has a very distinct aroma, which I tend to equate with dirty feet. Be prepared. If the smell bothers you too much while drinking tea, you can also get valerian’s benefits by putting some powdered root into empty gelatin capsules, available at co-ops, online, or some drug stores.
You can also dry the leaves to use as a tea for relaxation and insomnia. They aren’t as potent as the root, but they’re also much less stinky.
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Reprinted with permission from Backyard Pharmacy: Growing Medicinal Plants in Your Own Yard by Elizabeth Millard, published by Quarto Publishing Group, 2015. Buy this book from our store: Backyard Pharmacy.