Valeriana officinalis


The ancient stories say that rats are attracted to the strong odor of calming valerian root. Legend describes the Pied Piper with these roots in his pockets as he led the rats out of Hamelin. There are more than 150 species of Valeriana growing all over the world in temperate climates. It is the species officinalis that is used for medicine.

Valerian is a mineral-rich tonic, nourishing to the nervous system, and a powerful nervine, carminative and antispasmodic. This herb exerts a remarkable effect on the cerebrospinal system. Valerian has mild anodyne properties, so it helps to alleviate pain and promote deep, relaxing sleep. It is widely used as a sedative.

Valerian is a much wiser choice of tranquilizer than pharmaceutical drugs, which can have many side effects, including decreased coordination, decreased mental functioning, inability to concentrate and loss of memory. The risk of breaking a bone is five times greater when using tranquilizers. They are addictive, and drug withdrawal can lead to anxiety, restlessness, sleep disturbance, headaches and seizures. Valerian is an effective tranquilizer that is not addictive in recommended dosages and does not cause morning grogginess.

Small doses, 5-10 drops of valerian fresh root tincture or half a cup of dried root infusion, have a calming and soothing effect on the nervous system. 10-20 drops might put you to sleep. In larger doses, valerian can cause hyperactivity and headache.

One of my former students, Belinda, is a horsewoman. She told me her horses are high-strung and don't naturally travel well. She loves taking them to horse shows, so routinely gives them a bit of valerian in their feed before leaving. Belinda tells me her horses are calm and well behaved both during the trip and upon arrival.

Hildegard von Bingen recommended valerian as a tranquilizer and sleep aid. Valerian is a superior sleep inducer. To ensure a good night's sleep, I've taken 5-10 drops of valerian tincture in a bit of water, or drunk a cup of infusion half an hour before bed. Valerian can become habit-forming so I don’t advise using it consistently for more than three weeks in a row without a break. Skullcap, milky oats, lemon balm, chamomile and St. John's wort are all good alternatives.

Valeriana comune or erba gatta is commonly found growing in moist woods, along stream and river banks and on shady slopes throughout Southern Italia. Valerian is one of the most popular plants in our folk pharmacopoeia. The sedative properties have been employed to calm mania, panic, hysteria, convulsions and to remedy insomnia. The roots, dried and pulverized, were used as a treatment for hair loss.

Valepotriates are the active sedatives in valerian. They are found in all parts of the plant but are most concentrated in the root. Valerian's other constituents include valerianic, formic and acetic acids, borneol, conifene and pinene, glycosides catania and valeriana, alkaloids and resin.

Animal studies show valerian reduces blood pressure and suggest it possesses anticonvulsant properties. European herbalists have long used valerian to treat epilepsy. Several other studies demonstrate valerian's anti-tumor effects.

Flower Essence I've used valerian flower essence to help develop a calm, serene, well-balanced approach to life.

Magical Lore In magical lore, valerian is considered an herb of protection and an herb of healers. The plant was used to clear the energy of an area, and also for self-purification. In American Hoodoo Magic, valerian is called Vandal Root and one of its magical uses is to stop an unwanted visitor. Sprinkle chopped up valerian roots across the threshold and front steps/door while stating the name of the person in question and commanding they not be able to cross over. To increase the power of this spell, add salt and pepper.

Culture Valerian is a beautiful perennial plant that grows quite happily in any moist, rich place and spreads freely. In our gardens it reaches about six feet tall. The plants have bright-green, deeply toothed, longish leaves that form a rosette the first year. From the second year on, valerian puts up a tall stalk topped with an intoxicatingly fragrant whitish-pink umbel. Just smelling these blossoms is enough to relax me after a stressful day. The flowers attract all kinds of pollinators to the garden, including bees, flies and beetles.

We start valerian seeds in early spring and transplant out about six weeks after  germination. When valerian plants are happy in an area, they spread freely and there will never be a need to start them again.

Valerian's white roots grow in a dense cluster with many little rootlets, looking like a thick head of dreadlocks, and have a very strong smell that people either love or hate. The roots smell like earth to me, and I love it. Cats love the smell also!

We dig valerian roots in fall after the plant has died back and tincture the fresh roots in alcohol or vinegar or dry them on a screen in a well ventilated place out of direct light. We store them in a canister or other airtight container.   

“The earth which sustains humanity must not be injured, it must not be destroyed.” Hildegard von Bingen

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