Valerian – Valeriana officinalis

VALERIAN – Valeriana officinalis – VALERIANACEAE

Lovely in bloom and sweetly aromatic, Valerian is a mineral-rich tonic that is exceptionally nourishing to the nervous system.   It is a powerful nervine, carminative, and acts as an antispasmodic agent as well. This herb exerts a remarkable effect on the cerebrospinal system. Valerian is warming, slightly bitter and has mild anodyne properties, so it helps to alleviate pain and promote deep, relaxing sleep. It is widely used as a sedative.

Valerian is an effective tranquilizer that is not addictive in recommended dosages and does not cause morning grogginess.  In my opinion it 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 memory loss.  Did you know that the risk of breaking a bone is five times greater when using tranquilizers?   In addition, tranquilizers are addictive and drug withdrawal can lead to anxiety, restlessness, sleep disturbance, headaches, and seizures.

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 devoted 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, due to calming valerian.

Hildegard of Bingen, one of my favorites of the “old time” herbalists, 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 suggest using it consistently for more than three weeks in a row without a break. Scullcap, oatstraw, chamomile, passionflower and St. John’s wort are all good and effective alternatives.

Valepotriates are the active sedatives in valerian. They are found in all parts of the plant  including its leaves and flowers, but are most concentrated in the root. Valerian’s other constituents include valerian, formic and acetic acids, boneol, and pinene, a glycoside, 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.

In magical lore, valerian is considered an herb of protection and an herb of witches. The plant was used to clear the energy of an area, and also for self-purification.  I’ve used valerian flower essence to help develop a calm, serene, well-balanced approach to life.

Valerian is a beautiful perennial plant and grows quite happily in any moist, rich place. In my garden and around the farm, 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. But the roots are another matter!  Some people love the aroma of valerian roots, others cannot stand it.  It’s well known that rats are attracted to the strong odor of the root. Legend describes the Pied Piper with valerian 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 traditionally used for medicine making, though some other species have been used as well.  We start valerian seeds in early spring to transplant out about six weeks after  germination. Valerian’s white roots grow in a dense cluster with many little rootlets and look like a thick head of dreadlocks. The freshly dug roots smell like earth to me, and I love them. I’d say that Valerian just isn’t an herb for those people who find the odor offensive.

We dig valerian roots in fall after the plant has died back and tincture fresh valerian roots in alcohol or vinegar or dry them on a screen in a well-ventilated place, out of direct light. We store the dried roots in a canister or other air-tight container for later use as teas and infusions.

You’ll find our hand crafted MOFGA Certified Organic valerian root tincture here:  Blessed Maine Herb Farm

About gailfaithedwards

Gail Faith Edwards is an internationally recognized Community Herbalist with over thirty years experience. She is the author of a number of books about herbs and has taught in India, Italy, Poland and Russia, at the Yale School of Nursing, the University of Maine and the College of the Atlantic, among others. She is the founder of Blessed Maine Herb Farm and Director of the Blessed Maine Herb Farm School of Herbal Medicine. She is the mother of four grown children and the grandmother of four grandsons. Gail leads sacred journeys and ancestral pilgrimages to Southern Italia twice a year.
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6 Responses to Valerian – Valeriana officinalis

  1. I love the post, but I wish Valerian was an ally of mine. Sadly, I’m one of those quirky folks where it invokes the opposite effect from others. I still have affection for it even if I’m not destined to work with it directly myself.


  2. Oh, my gosh, Gail, Valarian must certainly be speaking to me this year….it magically appeared in our fields (a big patch) for the first time this year! And now this lovely article by you! I certainly need to “make medicine” with it. Thank you! Enjoy the growing season, your family, and the many mystical surprises in store this summer.
    Green Blessings,
    Barbara Kocen

    • Barbara, As a “witch’s herb” valerian has a mind of its own, it knows where to go and who it wants to be near…it sounds like it’s chosen you! Making medicine with it is a must, but just sitting with it will reveal much and help you develop a strong relationship with this amazing herb. Enjoy getting to know valerian this summer. Blessings to you and yours as well!

    • mary spinnato says:

      Hi Barbara
      Just read your note regarding Valarian and I’m very interested in knowing how you would go about using it for medicinal purposes. I would appreciate and info. Thank you and hope to hear from you.

  3. hi Gail,
    lovely post on valerian, this is a plant I love and is blooming now in our gardens too, odd that it’s blooming in northern NJ and Maine at the same time! I don’t use the plant much, being one of those people who don’t enjoy the roots, but I do like and am beginning to employ the flowers! I never yet met a cat who didn’t love valerian even better or as well as catnip, dried and put in a little muslin bag…they adore it! green blessings, Robin Rose

    • Thanks for your comment Robin. Yes, the valerian are blooming quite early here this year, as are many other plants it seems…I will have to give my daughter Rosa’s cat, Frankie, a bit of dried valerian root to see how he likes it. He certainly goes for the catnip in a really big way! Love and blessings to you! Gail

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