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Saturday, April 23, 2011

V is for Valerian, the wonder herb

Do you know the story about Valeriana Officinalis, the herb which brought a town to its knees? Sit, make yourself comfortable and I'll tell you the tale.

It is said that the elders of a small town in thirteenth century Germany took a job offer of ridding the town of rats to a certain musically talented young man. He, known henceforth as the Piped Piper, readily took the employment. He did his musical magic and banished all rats out of town to drown themselves in the river. Unfortunately, he was then promptly denied the payment they had agreed upon. Feeling cheated he threatened the town in a most diabolical manner but the elders had what they wanted, a town free of pestilent rodents. What could a guy with a flute do?

Well, as it turned out, he was not just a musician, but also an accomplished apothecary quite knowledgeable about all manner of herbs and their effects on people and animals alike. Legend has it the Piped Piper used Valerian root to hypnotize the children of Hamelin into following him straight out of town until he got his proper payment. Possibly the rats as well had a dose of Valerian. It has a similar effect like that of Catnip.  Had he been a vengeful sort the Piped Piper might have asked for more money but he only wanted his due. Perhaps the townsfolk of Hamelin felt their good fortune after getting their children back and therefore gave the young Piped Piper  the respect due him.

Now, some would say this is merely a fairy tale but there is too much irrefutable proof of the astounding powers of Valerian to dismiss it totally. Several centuries before the Piped Piper, knowledgeable Greek and Roman men of science, Galen, Pliny and Dioscorides to name a few, were touting the many amazing uses of Valeriana or Valere as they called it then. The name comes from the Latin for strong due to the harsh, unpleasant scent of the dried roots. Some have described it as smelling somewhat like dirty socks.

From a pain reliever, diuretic, tranquilizer, antidote to poisons, sleep aide to a decongestant, it seemed these notable experts used the valerian root as a panacea or a good-for-what-ails-you remedy. But it wasn’t until the 15th century when the herb’s popularity exploded due to an Italian doctor who claimed to have cured himself of epilepsy using the herb. Recent research has found his claims to be valid.  The great herbalist John Gerard insisted that any medicine without Valerian was no medicine at all. He urged people to use it for chest congestion, bruises, falls and convulsions.

Nicholas Culpeper the seventeenth century herbalist told of other uses for Valerian including the treatment of menstrual discomfort, bothersome coughs, digestive troubles, treating sores and wounds and most importantly for the time, to ward off the plague. The early colonists to the Americas soon found the natives using an American version of Valerian mostly for treating wounds and this was brought to the attention of the founder of Thomsonian medicine, popular around the time of the Civil War, Samuel Thomson who called it the best tranquilizer known to mankind.

With all these accolades backing it up it’s no wonder Valerian was used readily during World War I for those shell-shocked individuals suffering from what we know now as post-traumatic stress disorder. It was commonly used as a wonderful relaxing herb for insomnia, anxiety, headache, nervousness and intestinal cramps. To this day there are over one hundred over-the-counter tranquilizers and sleep-aide products being sold and guess what’s a main ingredient in almost all of them.

Researchers have since compared Valerian to other tranquilizers, benzodiazepines like Valium and found it to be much better, safer and with none of the side effects associated with them such as addictiveness, birth defects, morning grogginess, withdrawal symptoms and there were no negative effects when mixed with alcohol or barbiturates. Some other research shows the lowering of blood pressure and tumors in animals.

As for the plant itself, Valeriana Officinalis is a tall, 4-5 foot high,  hardy perennial with a tendency towards invasiveness due to spreading rhizomes and self-sowing. The fern-like leaves are light green and form a dense clump at the base with the small fragrant flowers, coming in white, pink, lavender blue or red, towering over in umbrella type clusters from late spring to summer. Valerian likes a sunny spot but will tolerate light shade. It prefers rich, loam soil and ample moisture.

It is the roots that are mostly used medicinally. Harvesting the roots is quite simple. Dig up the plants in spring or fall, cut off the roots you need and replant the rest for your next harvest. Dense clumps lose their vitality if not regularly thinned out so this conveniently promotes it’s health as it helps your own. Dry the roots in a well ventilated area away from direct sunlight and as it does rather stink outside or in a greenhouse is best.

To use Valerian as a sleep aide take 2 teaspoons of powered root in one cup water, allow to steep 10-15 minutes and drink this before bed time. As it is a bit nasty-tasting adding sugar, honey, lemon or mixing other more pleasant herbs or teas may makes it more tolerable.

Fair warning: Using Valerian in larger doses may cause blurred vision, restlessness, headache, nausea, giddiness and morning grogginess. Use wisely.


  1. What is the best way to cultivate it? From seed or getting rhizomes from a friend?

  2. If you're hinting that this partcular friend could give you a few starts, I'll have to get seeds to grow some first! No, I don't have Valerian in my garden yet, but I plan to and when I're quite welcome to it. :-)

  3. Yes, I think we should both have some. If the world falls apart it seems like a good thing to have on hand!


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