According to folklore, the Pied Piper led rats out of the city of Hamelin, Germany, not with music, but because he carried valerian in his pockets. This tall perennial herb contains compounds similar to those in catnip (Nepeta cataria), and cats — as well as rats and mice — tend to find the unique scent of valerian appealing.
Although the plant’s pink or white flowers are sweetly fragrant, its leaves and roots have a strongly pungent odor that most people consider highly unpleasant. Like catnip, valerian has a calming effect on people, and the herb’s common name is believed to derive from the Latin valere, which means, “to be well.” Valerian is native to Europe and western Asia and is naturalized in North America.
Common Names: Garden Heliotrope, Valerian
Description: Stems, 3 to 6 feet tall; dark green, lance-shaped serrated leaves; clusters of small white or pink flowers; large, pungent-smelling rhizomes
Hardiness: To Zone 3
Parts Used: Roots and leaves
Range/Habitat: Native to Europe and western Asia, naturalized in North America; damp meadows and wooded areas
Despite its strong scent and flavor, valerian was once eaten in salads and used as a pot herb. Today, extracts of valerian are used commercially as an apple flavoring in baked goods, soft drinks, beer, and tobacco.
Valerian root — taken in tea, extract, or capsule form — contains more than 100 physiologically active chemical compounds. Used as a mild sedative since ancient Roman times, this natural sleep aid is nonaddictive and has no known side effects, such as the hangover feeling associated with prescription sleep aids.
Valerian also dilates coronary arteries and helps normalize heart rhythm. It is used to relieve excitability, exhaustion, and anxiety-related symptoms such as heart palpitations, sweating, and feelings of panic. During World War I, it was used to treat soldiers with “shell shock” (a short-term condition now referred to as combat stress reaction), which can include memory loss. Valerian has antispasmodic properties and is a central nervous system (CNS) depressant. Clinical trials have shown it to be as effective (and sometimes more effective) at treating anxiety as some conventional pharmaceuticals.
To make valerian root tea, cover 1 teaspoon of the dried root with 1 cup of boiling water. Steep for 10 minutes and sweeten if desired.
Caution: Valerian can cause stomach upset in sensitive individuals, and in a small percentage of people it can be stimulating rather than calming. The herb should not be used together with a prescription or over-the-counter sleep aid, particularly a CNS depressant, or with alcohol. Pregnant women should avoid this herb.
How to grow it
Valerian thrives in moist, fertile soil and full sun or partial shade. Plant root divisions or seeds in spring or fall. Mulch with composted manure and remove flowers to increase root size. Harvest roots starting in fall of the plant’s second year. Dry the roots in a 170°F oven until brittle. Harvest leaves for salads or soups as needed.