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Herb to Know: Valerian

Learn how to grow and use this multi-purpose flower.

| February/March 1995

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.

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