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Herb to Know: Valerian

Try soothing valerian for sweeter sleep.

| August/September 2008

  • In early summer, valerian's delicate flower clusters pump out a heady, sweet vanilla scent.
    Barbara Pleasant
  • Stringy valerian roots can be dried for later use in sleep-promoting teas or irresistible cat toys.
    Barbara Pleasant

Sometimes known as garden heliotrope, valerian is one of the most fragrant perennials you can grow. Its rounded clusters of pale pink blooms perfume the garden and indoor bouquets for up to six weeks in early summer.

But valerian is much more than a pretty flower. Its roots contain compounds with calming effects so potent that valerian sometimes is called "poor man’s valium." (Valium is not made from valerian, but the two travel similar neural pathways in the brain.)

More than 1,800 years ago, the Greek physician Galen prescribed valerian for insomnia. The National Institutes of Health’s recent review of studies on valerian’s effectiveness drew "inconclusive" results, but two of these studies showed that valerian helped people fall asleep faster. In the study with the most participants, conducted in Switzerland in 1982, valerian reduced nighttime awakenings, especially among people who reported they were poor sleepers.

The active ingredients in valerian are water soluble, so you can take it as a simple tea. Although some think its flavor "foul," I find these claims to be wildly exaggerated. I steep ½ teaspoon dried or fresh snipped valerian root and 1 teaspoon chamomile in 1½ cups boiling water to make a potent nightcap for two. Even without honey, the tea tastes just fine to my sleep-challenged palate.



Other people like to combine valerian with hops, which also has sedative effects. Or you can buy valerian as a supplement. The typical before-bed dosage is 600 mg; exceeding this level could make you feel groggy the next day.

Growing Valerian

Native to Western Europe, valerian grows into a robustly upright, 5-foot-tall tower of sweet vanilla-and-clove fragrance. You can grow the plants from seed sown directly in the garden; or start seeds indoors, then set out container-grown plants in spring or late summer. Choose a sunny spot with access to water as valerian grows best with constant light moisture.



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