In the language of love the gift of Valerian means: ‘merit in disguise’ – “Conscious of my lowliness, I aspire nonetheless to wed you”. Valerian once had a reputation for its mystic power of disturbing the sexual desires and maidens would carry a small piece about their person in the hope that the smell might attract a lover. Historically, it has been found as an ingredient in love spells and to bring fighting couples back together, even stopping fights between males.
I have had Valerian in the garden for years now and look forward to the smell of the flowers in the Spring which is somewhere between chocolate and something a bit earthy. The roots however smell less pleasant than the flowers – without the chocolate scent. I certainly wouldn’t find myself attracted to the maiden with a piece of the root round her neck – I would probably offer her a bath. There is certainly something a bit ‘musky’ about the aroma of the root of this plant, which intensifies as it dries. This plant was once known as ‘Phu’ for these qualities. Its sale was restricted for some time in the USA due to the use of the root in stink bomb mixtures by New York gangsters.
It is also known as ‘Cat’s Valerian’ because they seem to actually like the smell and will dig-up and play with bits of the roots, often helping the plant to spread. Rats too are attracted by the smell and it was once used by rat catchers, for example it features in the ‘Pied Piper of Hamelin’. Another plant once called ‘All-heal’, Valerian is a useful sedative herb, it is often a component of ‘sleepytime’ teas and the like. Gerard says the dry root was put into concoctions and “counterpoysons and medicines preservative against the pestilence”. Valerian has been used as a medicinal herb since at least the time of ancient Greece and Rome. Hippocrates described its properties, and Galen later prescribed it as a remedy for insomnia. The Native Americans used it in healing wounds and ulcers, as well as a cough remedy.
The main compounds in Valerian are: valepotriates, valerenic acid and valeronone – which have the sedative effect. Valepotriates bind to benzodiazepine receptor sites in the brain – a mechanism similar to drugs like Valium, although Valerian works quite differently. The herb seems to be more beneficial to the nervous system, and does not cause dependence or tolerance. Gamma-aminobutyric acid is also present, which can have the effect of blocking the transmission of signals in the brain – hence its reputation as an herb to calm over-excitability. Also found are: acetic acid, ascorbic acid, beta-ionone, calcium, caffeic acid, magnesium, manganese and quercitin amongst others.
It is used in herbalism as an hypnotic, anti-spasmodic, hypotensive and carminative. That is to reduce tension and anxiety, hysteria or over-excitability. As anti-spasmodic it aids colic or cramps and helps with pain associated with tension. Unfortunately frequent or prolonged use may lead to the symptoms of poisoning, so it’s best for occasional use only. It should not be used with any medical drugs that have a sedative effect. About 5% of people experience the effects of Valerian as a stimulant, so, as with all herbs new to your system – start with small amounts to find your tolerance levels and unexpected reactions.
I can certainly vouch for its relaxing qualities as someone who gets muscular discomfort in the shoulders and eyestrain from computing. It works for both. Traditionally I purchased it in a vegetable extract form but the product in the shop seems to have been weakened through legislation too much to be of use. I now make my own extract in the form of a tincture – which you can see in the ‘alt. med. recipe’ section: How to Make Valerian Tincture
There are many little known plants ‘out there’, such as Fragrant Valerian, with incredibly powerful qualities. The countryside near us and even the raw state of foods we normally eat contain a pharmacopeia of healing potential and nutrition. People who want access to this more holistic and natural sense of health are finding it for themselves by rediscovering the awesome power of wild plants often thought of as weeds.
If this interests you – I have written and illustrated a book with over 200 pictures, on the subject called ‘WildFood Wizard’ – you can find out more about it here: WildFood Wizard by Simon Mitchell.