Valerian has been used since the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans and they gave this plant the name “Phu” because of its unpleasant smell. Today it is a common remedy for insomnia and anxiety but if you’re hoping for a nice, calming cup of tea you will be sadly disappointed by its bitter taste and “old sock” smell.
Valerian is such a fascinating plant with a long history in medicine and can be found in many tales. It is one of my favorite herbs, granted a smelly one, but it sure does work.
One of the first know medicinal uses of valerian root dates back to the time of Hippocrates in ancient Greece. During the same time in Greece, it was also believed that if you hung valerian root in your home it would help repel evil spirits.
In Nordic mythology, it is said that the goddess Hertha used a whip made from valerian to make the stag she rode to run faster. The Celts also hung bags of valerian root in their homes but not to ward off evil spirits, but lightning.
The root does have its place in magic, being used in love potions, sleep pillows, to bring protection, stop couples from fighting, and to tame wild beasts! This herb was even mentioned in the Harry Potter series as an ingredient in tea to help aid in sleep.
One of the best-known tales involving valerian root is that of Pied Piper of Hamelin. The German tail says that one day the town of Hamelin wanted to get rid of their rat problem. Pied Piper, a flute player, and an accomplished herbalist was contracted to help lure the rats away. In one version, he played his flute and drew the rats away and when he returned the town refused to pay him. Since they refused to pay him for ridding the town of rats he played his flute once again and lured all of the children in the town away to never be seen again. In another version, he lured both the rats and the children away the first time. In this version, he used not only his music but valerian root to lure the rats and children away.
In most tales, there is some truth to the legend. Valerian root actually can attract rats and cats! The root does contain a chemical similar to that in catnip. If you plant valerian in your garden you could potentially end up with some furry friends…some wanted and some unwanted.
Valerian root has been used for hundreds of years for sleeping troubles. Today we have some evidence that it might indeed be a good treatment for insomnia. One study found that valerian does indeed contain sedative properties. However, a review of 18 studies done on the use of valerian for insomnia treatment shows some promise that it is effective in humans but more research is needed. Other studies have found that valerian reduces the time it takes to get asleep, improves the quality of sleep, and participants experienced little side effects compared to common insomnia medications such as Xanax or Valium. The German Commission E approves of valerian for sleep problems and the root can be found in over 100 over the counter medication in Germany.
More research is needed but many people benefit from using valerian root for insomnia and other health issues and disorders. One of the biggest problems with its efficiency is that the quality of the herb changes based on where it is grown and other environmental conditions. Not every plant is equal. Scientists aren’t even 100% sure how valerian works. It is believed that it may increase GABA in the brain which helps regulate nerve cells and can calm anxiety. This could be why it works as a treatment for both anxiety and insomnia.
Common Name: Valerian
Scientific Name: Valeriana officinalis
Leaves- dark green, opposite, simple, pinnately lobed, 7-10 leaflets, hairy underneath, lower leaves are toothed
Flower- tiny, 5-lobed, pale pink-white, tight clusters, sweet smelling
Stem- hollow, grooved
Root- light grayish-brown when fresh, little smell when fresh
Height- 2-5 feet
Harvest Time: Spring or Fall
Parts Edible: Root
Found: Native to Europe & Asia, found throughout much of North America; found in fields and woodlands, likes full sun and average soil
-Was once used as an antidote to the plague
-The ancient Greeks and Romans would prescribe valerian as a diuretic, poison antidote, pain reliever, decongestant, and sleep aid
-Early Europeans considered the plant an “all-healing” plant and used it for just about anything
-Native Americans would make a poultice from the root to treat wounds
-Was used to treat shell-shock (PTSD) during WWI
-Has been used to treat painful menstruation, cramps, hypertension, irritable bowel syndrome, insomnia, anxiety, nervousness, stomach cramps, chest congestion, convulsions, bruises, coughs, heart palpitations, epilepsy, and aggression
-Used today to treat nervousness, anxiety, insomnia, headaches, and intestinal cramps
-Has been added to perfumes as an “earthy” or “mossy” scent
-Roots were placed in closets and dresser to scent clothing
-Was once a common condiment and added to soups in the middle ages
-Leaves were once eaten in early spring
Vitamins, Minerals, & More
Active ingredient: valepotriates
Properties: antibacterial, antidiuretic, antispasmodic, carminative, diuretic, hypnotic, nervine, sedative, stimulant
-Root tea is available but does not have a pleasant smell or taste to most
-A tincture or glycerite is often available or can be made
-The root can be powdered and put into capsules
-The root can be found or added to bath and feet soaks
-Do not take if you are pregnant or breastfeeding
-Do not give to children under 14 years of age
-Can interact with St. John’s Wort and medications changed by the liver
-Do not take valerian if you are on sedatives, anticonvulsants, barbiturates, or antidepressants
-Side effects may include: headaches, excitability, uneasiness, dizziness, stomach problems, drowsiness, and paradoxical reactions (anxiety, restlessness, insomnia)
-Do not take valerian with alcohol and do not operate large machinery after taking valerian
-Do not take for more than 1-2 months at a time
-Could cause withdraw symptoms from long-term use
-Stop taking valerian at least two weeks before surgery
-Harvest in either spring or autumn after the first frost and before the shoots come
-Harvest plants that are two years old
-Be careful cleaning the roots and avoid damaging them
-If growing them yourself, deadhead the flowers in the summer to increase root growth
Practicing Sustainable Wild Harvesting
- Only harvest plants you know are safe and can identify
- Only harvest plants in safe areas that are not contaminated or polluted
- Do not harvest on private property without permission
- Harvest no more than 10% or use the method: take 1 leave 2
- Know how to handle and prepare the plants you are harvesting
- Always check the legal status of the plant you want to harvest (is it endangered?)