Valerian officinalis, also known commonly as ‘garden valerian’ and ‘all heal’, its name derives from the Latin verb ‘valere’, to be well or strong, which is a clue to the plant’s medicinal properties. Recorded as a medicinal plant for over two thousand years, it has a reputation as an aid to sleep and an ability to calm anxiety, as well as having anticonvulsant and antispasmodic properties. It is often referred to as a ‘women’s herb’ for its beneficial effects on menstrual flow, relieving cramps and easing the symptoms of menopause.
As a lotion, it can ease skin irritation and soothe painful joints. It is also known as ‘nature’s sedative’ and was even used to treat soldiers in WW1 suffering from ‘shell shock’. These non-narcotic sedative properties have been investigated by pharmacologists and several chemicals have been isolated and identified. So valerian still remains of interest, in the possible treatments it offers through commercial production. Herbalists warn of possible ill effects from long-term effects, however, particularly liver damage.
It is a plant that is happy in most conditions, with the exception of total shade. It is perennial and can be propagated through cuttings, dividing up clumps or grown from seed. It should be cut back in the autumn but in any case, it will die back itself in winter. Valerian is a beneficial plant to have in the garden as it encourages earthworms. When grown in clumps in flower beds and borders, it provides a tall, attractive feature with small white to pale pink flowers gathered in florets. But it can be very straggly, with long hollow stems that are easily bent or broken and leaves that are small and offer little protection.
The plant can be easily overlooked but often calls attention to itself by its strong sweet scent which comes both from its flowers and aromatic leaves. It’s a scent which either attracts or repels (which effect does it have on you?) and its dried root seems to be particularly malodorous (‘sweaty socks’ was one description!). But it was used in perfumes and soaps in the Middle East. The scent attracts cats in the way catnip does and cats will often roll on it so enthusiastically that they destroy the plant. But perhaps unfortunately, it also attracts rats and some suggest it may have been the source of the Pied Piper’s fatal attraction to rats when he led them out of Hamelin!
Valerian also had culinary uses. Young leaves were eaten in the Spring and the plant was used as a condiment and added to soups and stews. Its roots were ground and used as flour. It does not appear to be used nowadays as a culinary plant, however.
Credit: Photo and text by Jan
DISCLAIMER: Any medical properties mentioned in this blog are meant for informational purposes only. They are not meant to be used to diagnose, treat, prescribe, prevent or cure any disease or to administer in any manner to any physical ailments and are not intended as a substitute for the medical advice of a trained health professional. Herbal remedies can also cause allergic reactions. Please do your own research and consult your heath care professional before treating yourself or anyone else.