Species: Valeriana officinalis
Related genera: Nardostachys, Valerianella
Names: Garden Valerian, Garden Heliotrope, All-heal
The name is derived from the Latin valeo, which means literally “I am strong”, “I am healthy”, “I am worth” or simply “I can”. The herb was hence attributed great healing powers.
Plant description: Perennial, hardy plant, about 1-1,50 m tall, growing wild along riversides and forest edges. The flowers occur in the second year. They are white to pinkish and, like the root, they emitt a heavy, sweet, cheese-like scent, which attracts bees, butterflies and other insects. The entire plant smells in fact like old cheese. The smell is known to drive cats crazy. So you may want to keep your plants safe from their paws. Valerian spreads via root and seed. The seeds form achenes, which are distributed by wind and water. The fresh leaves and flowers are edible and eaten in salad. In perfumery valerian is sometimes a substitute for spikenyard, from which a costly perfume oil is won. The oil extracted from valerian root is used in small amounts to create musk-like, woody and balmy undertones. In order to obtain a potent essential oil from the roots, the flower-heads should be removed.
History and folklore: In Northern Europe valerian was hung up over doorsteps, since the strong smell of the herb’s roots and flowers was believed to ward off evil spirits. The old-germanic goddess Hertha was envisioned to carry a valerian flower whilst riding on a stag. Carrying the herb was believed to protect anyone from evil sorcery. It was also believed that a valerian twig hung up in one’s room would move by itself as soon as a witch would enter. Valerian placed in a beehive was supposed to prevent the bees from swarming out and further to attract more bees. Lastly it was also believed to protect against the black death:
Eßt Bibernellen und Baldrian
so geht euch die Pest nicht an
According to another legend a hangman, in order to overcome his compassion with the victim, had to chew a piece of valerian root, as that was believed to make a person wrathful. Because it smells a bit like Limburger cheese, the Pied Piper of Hamelin was said to have attracted rats with valerian. The earthy scent is also believed to evoke the spirits of the forest, which makes it a traditional Samhain herb.
Valerian features in Christian renaissance paintings as a symbol for Christ’s death.
Magical uses: The root was considered an all-heal and a strong protector, a.o. believed to ward off the pest. Other times it was also used as an aphrodiasiac. A traditional ingredient in Samhain incense and teas it aids in contacting the spirits of the deceased. Its associated planet is Jupiter and element water. Besides healing and protection it is also used for purifying ritual tools.
Planet, element: Venus/Jupiter/Mercury, Water
Medicinal uses: Valerian root has been demonstrated possessing sedative and anxiolytic effects. It has long been valued for its calmative and soporific properties: a tea from the root drunk before going to bed promotes a relaxed and restful sleep. Valerian is also known by the name theriaca and was a main ingredient in Greek Theriac.
Propagation: via seed – Sow seeds on fresh seeding compost. Press seeds on soil and cover barely. Keep warm and sunny and don’t let seeds fall dry. To increase temperature place the sowing pots under glass or a transparent plastic foil that you air out regularly (making sure seeds don’t get moldy). Germination temperature: 20-25°C, germination time: 1-2 weeks. Prick out young plants and plant outdoors in May, after the last night frosts. Valerian thrives well in half shade and likes moist, humic soils. It grows wild along riversides and forest edges.