Helpful Herbs: Valerian
With a mythical sounding name, the herb Valerian is in possession of some almost magical properties. It is a beautiful perennial that has been part of apothecaries for centuries.
Valerian grows well in Zones 4 thru 9 and it can even be an invasive species in some areas. Controlled in the garden it is a hardy plant, reaching up to five feet tall. It is easiest to start Valerian from a seedling or a root division from an established plant. It will enjoy full or partial sun and rich soil, but as a hardy herb it tolerates many growing conditions. The pale purple flower clusters of Valerian can be cut for bouquets, and the roots should be trimmed back in the fall or late summer even if you are not harvesting the plant, since it will spread if left to its own devices.
The roots, leaves, and flowers of Valerian have what must be called a unique scent. Their smell is something like sweaty feet or rotting leaves, although some people enjoy it and compare it more to vanilla. Cats go crazy for Valerian, similarly to how they react to catnip, and sometimes mice and rats are attracted by its scent.
It is the root of Valerian that is most commonly used for healing potions. After a year of growth the Valerian root can be harvested by uprooting sections of the plant that spread outside the area that you are cultivating it in. The roots can then be thoroughly scrubbed and used fresh or dried.
Valerian root is most commonly used as a sleep aid. It has also been used to treat other similar issues such as restless leg syndrome and general anxiety. It can be used as a mild pain reliever, similar to aspirin. Valerian does cause upset stomach in some people, and it is recommended to try a small dose to see how your system reacts. Valerian's ability to treat insomnia is special because it doesn't simply knock someone out, it will generally relax a person and slowly allow them to sleep.
The historical uses of Valerian root in medicine are many, and even today herbalists use it for far more than a sleeping medicine. It has nicknames that include "herbal Valium" and "All-Heal", and it was cultivated by the Greeks and Romans as a treatment for insomnia. During the 17th Century botanist Nicholas Culpepper described using Valerian "boiled with liquorice, raisons and aniseed" to treat coughs, and noted that it had "special value against the plague".
Believe it or not, the moldy cheese scent of Valerian was once used as a perfume. As it's nickname of "All-Heal" implies, Valerian root was used to treat a wide variety of ailments from migraines to hysteria. It is said that, because rats are so attracted to it, the Pied Piper used it to lure the rats out of the village of Hamelin.
Valerian as a sleep aid will not leave you feeling groggy the next day, and it is not habit forming. It is a beautiful, if strongly scented, addition to the herb garden and the medicine shelf.
Disclaimer: These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. The information on this web site is not intended to prevent, diagnose, treat, or cure any disease.