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.
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.
Established plants bloom in early summer and are most fragrant in late afternoon. If you live in the Northeast—where valerian often becomes weedy—be sure to snip off faded flowers to prevent reseeding. After several seasons, established clumps can be dug and divided in spring or fall.
In spring and fall, the medicinal compounds in valerian roots are at their peak potency, so these also are the best times to harvest. Simply dig the plant, with roots intact, and hang it in a dark location indoors to dry. Freshly dug valerian roots have been said to smell like dirty socks, but to me they smell more like slightly soured laundry with a hint of mint … and after a couple of days of drying, the odor dissipates. When the roots are crisp-dry (after several weeks), snip off the best and store them in airtight containers in a cool, dark place.
Contributing editor Barbara Pleasant gardens and writes about herbs at her home in Virginia. She is author of The Whole Herb (Square One, 2004).