In the language of love the gift of Valerian means: ‘merit in disguise’ – and this is certainly a wild plant with merit. Valerian is a little known but extremely powerful herb that I find indispensable in the kitchen pharmacy. 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.
I’m including this recipe as a protest about the actions of Codex Alimentarius, international ‘guidelines’ which are shifting tinctures and other traditional herbal remedies to the domain of prescription drugs.
Tinctures are easy to make and very effective so I suggest you start making your own, until the authorities make that illegal. Firstly, don’t get confused between Red Shank Valerian, a common seaside plant and Fragrant Valerian, which has the medicinal qualities.
Valerian leaves emerge in early April, full of spring energy but traditionally Valerian is harvested in August after the flowers have died down. I harvested enough root for two small jars of tincture, shook the soil off and brought it inside. The soil was quite dry which limited the amount of mud sticking to the roots. I used old mustard jars, cleaned sterilised and dried in the sun. I am using vodka as a solvent here, but have used rum also. I suspect brandy would work well with the musky odour of the root, but whatever you use – its not a great taste!
Separate out the roots from the stems and leaves, which can go in the compost bin. Give the roots a good wash in the sink and shake out the roots to lose most of the water. Then chop the roots up and give them a bit of a bruising with a rolling pin.
Then simply put the roots into the jars, just short of the top, then top off with the alcohol. I didn’t have quite enough vodka so added a bit of water also. Seal the jars and leave them somewhere, out of sunlight, so that you can give them an occasional shake every day for about two weeks. You can then macerate the mix or rack off the liquid into a tincture jar.
As with all herbal medicines, don’t overuse a Valerian or other tincture because overuse or prolonged use of this herb can cause the symptoms of poisoning. I take about a teaspoon full mixed with water but you will need to establish your own tolerance levels.