Synonyms: All-heal, amantilla, baldrian, capon’s tail, cat’s love, cat’s valerian, fragrant valerian, garden heliotrope, great wild valerian, setewale, setwall, St. George’s herb, valerian, vandal root
Scientific Name: Valeriana officinalis L.
Root: essential oil, composed inter alia of monoterpenes and sesquiterpenes, iridoids, lignans, flavonoids and alkaloids.
Many people will be familiar with valerian as a calming medicinal herb. In its natural environment this perennial prefers moist sites, where in April it forms basal rosettes of strong pinnate leaves. In May tall plants, reaching up to 1.5 metres, grow from the centre of these rosettes, with variously pinnate leaves on grooved hollow stalks which from June to August bear inflorescences known as cymes: these are made up of many florets enthroned on stems and arranged in dense, level clusters. The nuances of colour are remarkable: while the buds appear pale pink, the open flowers may be white or retain a pink tinge. The rootstock consists of a main rhizome the thickness of a thumb, from which countless long, thin roots branch off. When dug up the root looks like a long beard or head of hair.
For medicinal purposes the root of valerian is usually dug up in September, washed and allowed to dry. This is when it develops the characteristic valerian odour. But this odour is not the source of its soothing action. Indeed, valerian is a good example of how the entirety of a plant gives rise to its effects, rather than one isolated substance. Thus the effects of valerian cannot be ascribed to a specific constituent.
Valerian exerts its calming effect when restlessness and difficulty falling asleep are of nervous origin. A particularly positive aspect of this is that valerian does not cause the user to feel tired when taken during the day. Therefore the ability to drive, for example, is not impaired. On the contrary, many patients feel relaxed and even refreshed after taking it. When taken at night it encourages a pleasant sleep from which the user awakes fresh and alert, unlike the residual tiredness often associated with taking benzodiazepines to aid sleep. Valerian not only soothes when taken internally: baths with valerian also have a relaxing and soothing effect, including on muscles. One thing to bear in mind when taking valerian is that it may be slow to take effect – only after several days of use – but the effect can be prolonged.
The origin of the scientific name valerian has become lost in the mists of speculation. One suggestion is that the name is linked to Valeria in Pannonia, a province of the Roman Empire founded in the year 10 CE and situated half in today’s Austria and half in western Hungary. Valerian may stem from this region, or was at least very widespread there. But the name could also derive from the belief that valerian root with its strong odour was able to ward off devils, witches and demons. In Middle High German the word ‘valant’ was a designation for the devil. Some authors consider the scientific name valerian to derive from the Latin valere = healthy. Many think that the German name, baldrian, is a reference to the Germanic god of light, Baldur.
Valerian was already known for its medicinal properties in antiquity. For a long time all sorts of healing qualities were ascribed to it – relating to menstrual complaints, tuberculosis, gout and pestilence, for instance – but it was not known for its nerve-soothing properties. This effect – which has since been proven – was first detected by the Italian botanist Fabio Colonna (1567-1640). Searching for a medicinal plant to treat his epilepsy he found a reference to valerian root in the works of Dioscorides (1st century CE) and erroneously ascribed the cure of his disease to it. In his view this proved beyond doubt that valerian acted on the nervous system.
Whilst human beings do not always appreciate the smell of valerian, cats love it and will roll around ecstatically in valerian herb. Many pet shops offer cushions filled with valerian root for kitty to play with. This euphoric reaction of cats to valerian may explain its reputation as the plant of love. Thus it is widely recommended that lovers take a little valerian root into their mouths when kissing to ignite the fire of love in the person they kiss.
In biodynamic cultivation, composts are treated with diluted juice of valerian flowers. Sprayed over pre-prepared compost heaps valerian evenly accelerates the composting processes.
The plant from another perspective
The pale pink flowers of the valerian plant float on high, almost appearing to shimmer in the air. They resemble people who live too much in the world of pure thought and are no longer grounded. However, the flowers of the valerian plant are connected with the earth via its long stems and exceptionally branching rootstock. Thus anchored, the flowers can float confidently on high without losing themselves. With this in mind it is easy to understand the calming effect of valerian from the appearance of the plant.