In my last article, I wrote about the lovely aroma of elder flowers.
Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) is on the other end of the fragrance spectrum. Although some people like the smell of valerian (I’m one of them), many say that it reminds them of “dirty sweat socks.” Dioscorides and Galen must have felt the same way, since they referred to valerian as “Phu.”
Other common names for valerian include: garden valerian, all-heal, cut-finger, and garden heliotrope. (Valerian is in the Valerianaceae family, not the Heliotrope family.) The name comes from the Latin “valere,” meaning to be strong or to be healthy.
- The Valerian Plant
- The Lore
- The Lure
- How to Use Valerian
- A Free Ebook Just For You!
- Herb to Know: Valerian
- What Is Valerian: How To Grow Valerian Plants In The Garden
- How to Grow Valerian Plants
- Valerian – Key Growing Information
- Valerian Plant Information
- How to Grow Valerian
- Requirements for Growing Valerian
- Valerian Plant Care
- Growing Valerian: Taking Root in the Garden
- Dreaming of a beautiful, productive veggie garden?
- Dandelion Root
- Valerian Root
- Harvesting Herbal Roots
- How to Grow and Use Valerian
- Medicinal Uses of Valerian:
- How to Grow Valerian:
- Do YOU use or grow Valerian?
The Valerian Plant
Valerian is a perennial to zone 4, and prefers sun or partial shade. There are more than 200 varieties, which grow in Britain, Northern Europe, China, and South and North America. This article focuses on V. officinalis, which is likely a native of Britain and Northern Europe, including Scandinavia.
The plant can reach five or six feet tall, has opposite compound leaves with seven to ten leaflet pairs. The stem is hollow, and the flowers are small and pinkish/white with a sweet smell.
You can easily propagate valerian by root divisions in the spring or fall, but it often escapes from the garden and will self-seed with abandon. Some years, I’d put it on the invasive list! (I’ve often wondered if you can call a plant that you love “invasive.”)
I like to harvest valerian on warm fall day, after the first frost. The parts used include the root and the rhizomes. Dig plants that are at least two years old in the spring or fall. Be careful not to damage the roots as you dig. Some folks believe that the stronger the smell, the stronger the constituents of the plant, and by damaging the roots, the aromatics may be compromised. To get more root production, deadhead the flowers during the summer. Cats love valerian, so you can expect every feline in close proximity to join you during your harvest. When you clean the roots, take care not to rub, scrub, or scrape them to avoid damage. This is tricky, but it can be done.
Valerian makes a great garden plant. It seems to help nearby plants by stimulating phosphorus and earthworm activity. A decoction made from the roots and sprayed on the ground will attract earthworms. The mineral-filled leaves can be added to your compost, too.
Most of us have heard the tale of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, Germany who played his flute and led the rats out of town forever. Many feel the Pied Piper must have been familiar with valerian and put it in his pockets or rubbed himself with it. Rats love the smell, and it may have been the valerian, not the music, that enticed the rats to follow him!
The Nordic goddess Hertha is said to have used valerian as a whip to encourage the stag she rode to greater speeds! (The stag’s bridle was said to be made of hops.)
In magic, it was used in love potions, and in sleep pillows. If worn by a woman, it is said that men would “follow like children.”
Some people claimed that if valerian was thrown where people (especially a couple) were fighting, they would cease immediately! It is also claimed to tame the wildest of beasts.
The ancients Greeks would hang bundles of valerian in their homes, especially in their windows, to keep evil entities from entering. The Celts believed hanging it their homes would keep lightening from striking.
In the wizard world of Harry Potter, valerian was believed to have soporific qualities and was given in teas to encourage sleep.
It was generally regarded as a feminine element. Its powers were believed to be love, sleep, purification, and protection.
Where do the magic sleep potions end and the tincturing begin?
In Germany, valerian is used in more than 100 over-the-counter tranquilizers and is the number one nonprescription sedative in Europe.
When most people think of valerian, the first thing they often think of is sleep – for falling asleep, a good night’s sleep, and for waking without the usual grogginess of other sleep aids. It is one of the best gentlest ways to find sleep when used properly.
But it has also described as a nervine, hypnotic, antispasmodic, emmenagogue, nervous system tonic, sedative, stomachic, expectorant, mild anodyne, and a smooth muscle relaxant.
A long time ago, someone told me a good herbalist not only knows twenty herbs, but also knows twenty uses for one herb. Valerian would an herb with many uses.
In addition to a sleep aid, valerian has been used for anxiety, stress, to treat addictions, convulsions, gas, pain, hyperactivity, intestinal cramping, migraines, aggression, nervous exhaustion, coughs, epilepsy, and the flu. And the list goes on and on. This plant has more than 2000 years of documented use!
- Pliney (23 AD – 79 AD) recommended valerian for pain relief;
- Dioscorides (40 AD – 90 AD) used it as a diuretic;
- Galen (129 AD – 200 AD) as a decongestant;
- Hildegard of Binger (1098 – 1179, 100 years before the Pied Piper) used it as a tranquilizer and in sleep aids;
- John Gerard (1545 – 1611) touted it as an aid for chest congestion, convulsions, and bruises;
- Culpepper (1616 – 1654) claimed it was useful against the plague, but also for coughs and wounds;
- The 19th century Eclectics used it as a calmative and for epilepsy;
- During World War I and II, it was used as a nervine for shell shock and for calming nervous citizens (more on that here);
- It was in the U.S. Pharmacopeia from 1820 – 1942; and it was
- Included in the National Formulary until 1950.
How to Use Valerian
The easiest way to prepare valerian is by decocting the root and sipping the tea as needed. I was taught not to boil the root, but to “simmer it hard.” You can pick up dried valerian here.
Tincturing with fresh valerian root is best, but dried valerian will also work when the fresh root is not available.
Just a note here on alcohol for tincturing: Historically, vodka was made from potatoes, brandy from grapes/fruits, and gin from juniper berries. Take some time and read the labels; many of our old standbys are now made from grains, and many of the grains in the U.S. are GMO grains. If you are gluten intolerant or have allergies, this could present a problem. GMOs are banned in Sweden; therefore, I have chosen to tincture using alcohols from Sweden or use an expensive U.S. brandy. You can read more about making tinctures here.
For the past few years, I have experimented with tincturing fresh valerian flowers, a gentler approach for addressing anxiety. The tincture, if made using clear alcohol, turns a lovely golden color. I also tincture the root in a vegetable glycerin at about a 75% glycerin and 25% water for families who chose not to consume alcohol. (Keep an eye on the shelf life of glycerin tinctures.)
I generally make only simples and combine them later. Valerian combines well with skullcap, passion flower, hops, lemon balm, and lavender.
Baths and Foot Soaks
Baths and foot soaks were more popular a hundred years ago, but they appear to be making a comeback. Valerian baths were particularly popular among those suffering from rheumatic pain. To make a valerian bath, I put the herb in an old sock and toss it in the tub.
In my foot soaks, I usually add a bag of marbles, including a few “shooters.” Rubbing your feet over the marbles hits many of your reflexology points. In addition to the valerian, I generally add some mint for circulation and a teaspoon or so of ground yellow mustard, since I feel it helps to open the pores. Put all of this in a basin that holds both of your feet, and add water as warm as you can tolerate. Sit and relax until the water is no longer comfortable. Have a towel handy to dry off your feet.
Historically, ointments and salves were used for skin problems, rashes, bruising, and for sore muscles. Personally, I like to use a valerian salve on my feet, a gentle relaxant that helps me sleep.
A poultice made from the root has been known to draw out splinters. You can read more about making poultices using dried and fresh herbs here.
Valerian is also available in capsule form, alone or with other similar herbs.
Compresses of a heavy decoction or tincture, were used to relax cramping.
Remember one of the common names for valerian is cut finger? Our ancestors would make a wash from the root and use it to clean out wounds.
Cautions – Valerian should only be used for two to three weeks, followed by a break of the same duration. Continual use can cause depression and headaches in some people. Another caution: In a small percentage of the population, valerian has the opposite effect – it can cause agitation, giddiness, restlessness, and sleeplessness. Just be aware, in case you’re one of the approximately 5 – 7%. Avoid using valerian with small children, and for those over 65, start with very small amounts.
In the middle ages, valerian was used as a condiment and was considered a staple food. It was regularly added to soups and stews, and the dried root was made into flour. The young leaves were eaten in early spring. I don’t know of anyone who considers the plant as food now, but it is available in a survival situation.
Believe it or not, valerian has been used in perfume! A decoction of the root was also used for facials.
Valerian has a high calcium content and is also high in selenium, tin, aluminum, chromium, iron, and magnesium.
Valerian for Animals
Valerian has been used for horses in colic, for nervous horses, moody mares (as a decoction), and in a salve for bruising. If you want to try using valerian for your horses, observe the following cautions:
- Keep the doses low.
- Avoid giving valerian to pregnant or nursing mares.
- The third cautions for those who show their horses. Valerian has been on the banned list of some equestrian competition associations. Avoid using it if you are competing at a level where your horse may be tested until you check the banned list for your breed and sport. Check with your vet prior to administering valerian.
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Herb to Know: Valerian
Sometimes known as garden heliotrope, valerian is one of the most fragrant perennials you can grow. Its rounded clusters of pale pink blooms perfume the garden and indoor bouquets for up to six weeks in early summer.
But valerian is much more than a pretty flower. Its roots contain compounds with calming effects so potent that valerian sometimes is called “poor man’s valium.” (Valium is not made from valerian, but the two travel similar neural pathways in the brain.)
More than 1,800 years ago, the Greek physician Galen prescribed valerian for insomnia. The National Institutes of Health’s recent review of studies on valerian’s effectiveness drew “inconclusive” results, but two of these studies showed that valerian helped people fall asleep faster. In the study with the most participants, conducted in Switzerland in 1982, valerian reduced nighttime awakenings, especially among people who reported they were poor sleepers.
The active ingredients in valerian are water soluble, so you can take it as a simple tea. Although some think its flavor “foul,” I find these claims to be wildly exaggerated. I steep ½ teaspoon dried or fresh snipped valerian root and 1 teaspoon chamomile in 1½ cups boiling water to make a potent nightcap for two. Even without honey, the tea tastes just fine to my sleep-challenged palate.
Other people like to combine valerian with hops, which also has sedative effects. Or you can buy valerian as a supplement. The typical before-bed dosage is 600 mg; exceeding this level could make you feel groggy the next day.
Native to Western Europe, valerian grows into a robustly upright, 5-foot-tall tower of sweet vanilla-and-clove fragrance. You can grow the plants from seed sown directly in the garden; or start seeds indoors, then set out container-grown plants in spring or late summer. Choose a sunny spot with access to water as valerian grows best with constant light moisture.
Established plants bloom in early summer and are most fragrant in late afternoon. If you live in the Northeast—where valerian often becomes weedy—be sure to snip off faded flowers to prevent reseeding. After several seasons, established clumps can be dug and divided in spring or fall.
In spring and fall, the medicinal compounds in valerian roots are at their peak potency, so these also are the best times to harvest. Simply dig the plant, with roots intact, and hang it in a dark location indoors to dry. Freshly dug valerian roots have been said to smell like dirty socks, but to me they smell more like slightly soured laundry with a hint of mint … and after a couple of days of drying, the odor dissipates. When the roots are crisp-dry (after several weeks), snip off the best and store them in airtight containers in a cool, dark place.
Contributing editor Barbara Pleasant gardens and writes about herbs at her home in Virginia. She is author of The Whole Herb (Square One, 2004).
What Is Valerian: How To Grow Valerian Plants In The Garden
Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) is an herb that’s been used in traditional medicine for centuries and is still known for its calming effects even today. It’s very tough and easy to grow, earning it a place in plenty of medicinal and ornamental gardens. Keep reading to learn more about how to grow valerian plants.
How to Grow Valerian Plants
What is valerian? It’s a hardy perennial native to Eurasia. It’s very cold tolerant and thrives in USDA zones 4 through 9. A valerian herb plant will die back to the ground in the winter, but the roots should be fine and will put up new growth in the spring.
It will grow in a wide variety of conditions, from full to sun to partial shade and in any well-draining soil. It does, however, like to be kept moist. As part of valerian herb plant care, you’ll need to water it frequently and cover it with mulch to help retain moisture.
Also, a valerian herb plant will self-seed very readily. If you don’t want your plants to spread, remove the flowers before they have a chance to develop and drop seeds.
Growing valerian herbs is very easy. The seeds can be sown directly in the ground after all chance of frost has passed, or they can be started indoors several weeks earlier and then transplanted outside.
The plants grow to between 3 and 5 feet in height and produce white, faintly scented flowers. The roots are used for their calming properties when eaten or brewed into tea. Harvest the roots in the fall by watering the plant, then digging the whole thing up. Wash the soil from the roots, then dry them in the oven at 200 degrees F. (93 C.) with the door open a crack. The roots may take two growing seasons to be large enough to harvest.
Valerian – Key Growing Information
DAYS TO GERMINATION: 7-21 days.
SOWING: Transplant (recommended): Sow seeds 3/8″ deep into soil mix, moisten, and keep temperatures at 65-68°F (18-20°C) until germination. Once germinated, valerian can be grown at normal greenhouse temperatures until large enough to transplant at 5-6″ tall. Transplant outside in the early spring when the ground can be worked.
Direct seed: Direct seed in the spring or fall, sowing about 1 seed per inch at a depth of 3/8- 1/2″. Thin to 12-18″ apart, in rows 3′ apart.
LIGHT PREFERENCE: Sun/Part Shade.
SOIL REQUIREMENTS: Valerian grows in a wide range of soils, but prefers a moist, but well-drained loam.
PLANT HEIGHT: 48-78″.
PLANT SPACING: 12-18″.
HARDINESS ZONES: Zones 3-9.
HARVEST: Roots are dug in the fall of the second year, after the vegetative growth begins to yellow and die back to the ground. Roots can also be dug in the spring before the plant bolts and flowers. Wash roots and dry in a warm area, 100°F/38°C.
Note: The main plant dies back the second year and smaller daughter plants will grow around its base. These can then be transplanted out at the recommended spacing.
SCIENTIFIC NAME: Valeriana officinalis
USDA Zones— 4 – 9
Other Names— All-Heal, Amantilla, Baldrian, Baldrianwurzel, Common Valerian, Garden Heliotrope, Garden Valerian, Guérit Tout, Herbe aux Chats, Herbe de Saint-Georges, Herbe du Loup, Indian Valerian, Mexican Valerian, Pacific Valerian, Rhizome de Valériane, Tagar, Tagar-Ganthoda, Tagara, Valeriana, Valeriana angustifolia, Valeriana edulis, Valeriana jatamansii, Valeriana officinalis, Valeriana Pseudofficinalis, Valeriana Rhizome, Valeriana sitchensis, Valeriana wallichii, Valerianae Radix, Valeriane, Valériane, Valériane à Petites Feuilles, Valériane Africaine, Valériane Celtique, Valériane Commune, Valériane de Belgique, Valériane des Collines, Valériane Dioïque, Valériane du Jardin, Valériane Indienne, Valériane Mexicaine, Valériane Officinale, Valériane Sauvage.
Valerian Plant Information
Valerian plant can grows up to 2 m high and 1 m wide. It is cultivated to obtain its rhizomes and roots, which are large and look yellow from outside and white inside. Its blooms are highly fragrant, whereas roots and rhizomes are musty in odor.
The use of its root produces a stimulant effect similar to drunkenness. The cats are attracted towards this plant like catnip. Valerian roots also attract rats and other rodents.
How to Grow Valerian
Propagation and Planting Valerian
Growing Valerian from seeds is slightly difficult. Better is to propagate it from division or you can buy seedlings from a nursery. For seed propagation, sow them in a seed starting mix. Barely cover the surface. Sprinkle the water frequently to keep the substrate moist until germination. When seedlings are mature enough, transplant them onto a frost free ground, leaving 1 m space between each plant. If you like to plant Valerian in a container, choose a big and deep planter.
Valerian Varieties and Species
Valerian officinalis belongs to the genus Valeriana (family Caprifoliaceae). This Valeriana genus contains many other wild species that are not cultivated in gardens, such as marsh Valerian (V. dioica) or tuberous Valerian ( V. tuberosa).
It should not be confused with the red Valerian that also belongs to the same Caprifoliaceae family, which is actually a kind of Centranthus.
Requirements for Growing Valerian
Valerian has no special requirements. It requires temperate climate to thrive. Plant it in semi-shade. If you’re growing Valerian in full sun, you have to provide enough moisture. In cooler zones planting in full sun is possible.
Keep the soil moderately moist. In summer, water it regularly, especially if it is exposed to direct sunlight.
In order to proliferate properly and effortlessly, growing Valerian requires soil that is relatively loose, moist, deep, well drained, fertile and rich in organic matter. It needs pH level close to neutral (between 5.5 to 7).
Valerian Plant Care
Regularly remove the competitive weeds in the spring.
Pests and Diseases
It doesn’t get affected with particular diseases or pests. A quality that makes growing Valerian simple and suitable even for beginners.
When and how to harvest it?
Harvest roots in the fall (autumn) or in winter with a fork tail, choose mature plants that are at least 2 years old.
Growing Valerian: Taking Root in the Garden
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I have been growing valerian (Valeriana officinalis) for years in the medicinal section of my herb garden. Native to Europe and Asia, this calming herb also grows well in North America. Sometimes known as garden heliotrope or nature’s Valium, because of its calming qualities, valerian has been used medicinally since the 4th century. Talk about an herb with an ancient pedigree!
Growing valerian made sense since I was already growing and using other “calming” herbs on my healing herbs list — herbs like chamomile, motherwort, hops, and lemon balm.
This perennial can grow up to four feet tall here in southwestern Ohio. It’s cold hardy through Zone 4. Valerian dies back to the ground in the winter but shoots up new growth in early spring.
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Growing Valerian from Seed
Valerian is easily grown from seeds or seedlings. Valerian seeds don’t last long in storage. You’ll want fresh seeds no older than one year.
Seeds can be started indoors four weeks prior to transplanting in late spring. I prefer planting seeds in peat pots filled with a seed starter mix. Place seed onto soil, then cover with a quarter-inch of soil, tamping gently.
Sprinkle evenly with warm water.
Grow lights and fluorescent lights help germination, but a warm environment, with a southwestern facing window, works well, too.
Water as needed. Soil should stay moist but not sopping wet.
When seedlings sprout their second set of leaves, usually within four weeks, they are ready to be transplanted outdoors.
Outdoors Direct Sow
Choose a permanent site for growing valerian seeds outdoors. Take into consideration that valerian can grow up to over five feet, depending upon conditions. I plant mine in the back of the herb garden where it makes a lovely border. Valerian likes a pH of between 5.5 and 7.0.
Plant seeds in fall, or early spring. General garden soil is fine. If your soil is poor, amend it with compost or well-aged manure.
Place seeds gently onto soil, then cover with a quarter-inch of soil, tamping gently. Plant a foot apart and thin later as needed. Water well and keep moist.
Growing Valerian from Seedlings
Growing herbs outside after they reach the seedling stage is easy to do. Regular garden soil is fine, but if you need to amend the soil, do so with compost or well-aged manure. Valerian likes a very moist, well-drained soil.
Space seedlings about two feet apart in the ground. As mentioned, valerian is a large plant, so it needs lots of room. Valerian can send out runners, so keep that in mind when planting. If that happens, simply separate the plants with a spade in spring. In fact, you’ll find when growing valerian, that it may become invasive.
Valerian mother plant in bud.
Many folks prefer planting herbs in pots. Growing valerian in pots or other containers is doable.
If you let the plant go to seed, the seed will fall from the plant and produce seedlings in the spring.
“Babies/runners” growing in spring.
My valerian has white flowers; other varieties may have pink flowers. The flowers have a somewhat strong scent, which I think smells a little like vanilla. Other people think the whole plant is strong smelling, but not in a nice way. I will tell you the roots have a strong, somewhat musty odor. I have heard that the odor dissipates once the roots are dry, but that has not been the case with me. They still smell strong! But interestingly enough, when the roots are brewed into tea, the odor goes away, leaving a faintly woodsy, pleasant aroma.
Cut Flowers for Bouquets
You’ll notice when growing valerian, the flowers it produces will be in abundance. I like to cut the flowers for bouquets. This also keeps the plant from going to seed and spreading. Another bonus for keeping the flowers cut is that this can help the roots become more potent medicinally.
Valerian has an abundance of flowers.
If you have several generations of valerian, dig up the older, more mature plants for medicinal use and let the younger ones grow. Older roots have more potency than young ones. (Roots may take up to two growing seasons to be large enough to harvest).
First, start by digging up the whole plant with roots. This is best done in the fall when all the energy has gone back into the roots or very early spring before top growth begins. Clean the roots gently so they don’t bruise, drain, and chop up if you’re drying in a dehydrator or warm oven.
Leave the roots whole if you’re drying them naturally in a warm environment away from drafts and sun. This method takes the longest.
Dried valerian root.
Valerian Plant Uses
Do you have trouble falling or staying asleep? Overstimulatedated after a trying day? Then you’ll welcome valerian as a calming, subtle medicinal. Valerian has many uses, the most popular of which is for a good night’s sleep, sans the grogginess upon awakening that sometimes accompanies sleep aids.
Valerian may have the same effect on cats that catnip does. Our cat, Rain, loves valerian. She will happily roll and loll around in the roots and leaves.
Our cat Rain loves valerian!
There are various ways to use valerian medicinally. I like to make both teas and tinctures.
Don’t boil the water! If the water is too hot, some of the phytochemicals may be destroyed.
To every eight ounces of hot water (85 degrees F), stir in one of the following:
- 1 tablespoon fresh root
- 1 teaspoon dried root
- 2 tablespoons fresh leaves
- 2 teaspoons dried leaves
- Cover and steep for at least 10 minutes or up to 30, so that all the good nutrients are infused gently into the warm water.
- Strain, and if the tea has cooled too much, simply warm it up a bit.
- After you make it once, adjust the proportions to your liking.
I like to sweeten the tea with raw honey. Sweet dreams!
Valerian tea brewed from leaves.Valerian tea brewed from roots. Ahh, warming valerian tea!
Valerian tincture is expensive to buy, inexpensive to make. I prefer tincturing the root; some herbalists tincture the flower for a less potent tincture.
Alcohol tinctures last several years in the pantry and are easy to tote. Your body doesn’t need to digest a tincture, so it goes to work right away.
- Fresh or dried valerian root
- Fill a glass jar or bottle halfway up with dried valerian root. If using fresh root, fill the jar all the way up.
- Pour 80 to 100-proof vodka over the root and fill the jar.
- Label with the start date.
- Place in an area away from light, like the pantry. Let mixture steep for four to six weeks. Shake occasionally.
- Strain, squeezing out as much liquid as possible.
- Fill a small medicine bottle that has a dropper cap. Pour the remaining tincture into a glass jar and store in a cool, dark place.
Valerian tinctures: Vodka on left; Brandy on right. Valerian Tinctures: Vodka on left; Brandy on right.
How to Use a Tincture
Put a dropper full into some warm water. The University of Maryland Medical Center suggests that four to six mL is the appropriate daily dose for insomnia.
To make the tincture more palatable, substitute brandy for the vodka.
What’s a Good Substitute for Alcohol?
Try an organic vegetable glycerin. One recipe I found uses 75 percent glycerin and 25 percent water. This tincture lasts up to a year.
Who Should Not Use Valerian
Valerian is contraindicated in pregnant and breastfeeding women, but otherwise is a safe herb for adults to use when needed for stress or sleep-related issues.
Check with your healthcare provider regarding valerian use for children. Again, it is generally considered to be safe, but dosages may be different.
My research indicates side effects are fairly rare.
If an allergic reaction occurs, like a rash, hives, or difficulty breathing, discontinue use.
In some people, valerian has the opposite effect. They become more stimulated instead of becoming calmer. If that happens, discontinue use.
I think common sense comes into play here. You know it’s for you if after drinking the proper dosage, you feel an overall sense of calm and well being. That’s exactly how I feel after enjoying a cup of valerian tea or a dropper full of tincture into warm water.
Legend and Lore
Legend has it that valerian is the herb Peter Piper used to lure the rats out of his town. Supposedly, he rubbed the root all over himself and since valerian is intoxicating to rats, they followed him and his music right out of town! Some cats find valerian root as enjoyable as catnip, so don’t be surprised if you have to push your furry friend out of the way when harvesting valerian root!
Do you grow valerian? We’d love to hear any tips you have on this beautiful and useful herb.
Although Valerian has a very pretty and strong smelling flower, it is the root that is used. The best time for harvesting the root is when the plant is dormant either at the beginning of winter or just before the plant starts growing again in Spring. I spent the last week of August stinking out the house as I washed and dried my newly harvested valerian root. It is not a very enjoyable job as cleaning the roots is difficult, time consuming and very smelly. The roots clump under the main plant and look a little bit like spaghetti noodles when fresh. All of the dirt needs to be washed away from the roots which as the valerian has been growing in our clay soil is a long and tedious job. Once the roots are clean, they are then placed into the dehydrator to dry. They are quite thin so relatively quick and painless to dry. All this hard work is worth it as valerian root is an amazing sedating herb for most people (if you can mask the smell and taste). The only ones in our house who like the smell are the cats who kept me company for most of the time I was cleaning the roots.
Fall is a great time to harvest medicinal roots. Autumn is the time of year when the plant’s energies are focused back into the roots instead of the leaves and flowers, especially after a frost. Dandelion and Valerian are the two I’m going to be focused on this week as we get our first hard frosts.
As any gardener knows, dandelion can be a bugger of a root to dig up. Generally, speaking I get small little nubs of roots but plenty of them for drying. It’s always easiest to dig them up in a softer garden bed than it is out of a lawn. Do the best you can to get a spade underneath and pull up what you can.
Once the root is harvested, it can be used fresh, after a good scrubbing. For long-term storage, it’s easy to dry: simply scrub, chop into pieces, and dry in a dehydrator until crisp. Store in airtight container until ready to use.
Dandelion Root Uses
Dandelion is often considered a liver cleanser and helps rid the body of inflammation. Make a tincture by simply covering the dried root with vodka (or grain alcohol) in a jar and letting sit for 6 weeks (shaking when you remember) and then strain. Keep the tincture stored in a tightly sealed glass container until needed (I use beer bottles with the swing tops to store tinctures).
A tea is simply made by simmering the roots in water for 20-30 minutes before straining.
Overeat at the holiday buffet? Take 10 drops of the tincture in water every hour until that sluggish feeling passes.
It’s even good for your pets and barnyard animals for the same reasons it’s good for us – helps with digestion and cleanses the liver.
Cautions: Dandelion should be avoided by folks with ulcers and bowel & gallstone issues. Also, avoid when taking antibiotics.
I purposely grow valerian in my garden and only dig up a small portion each year so that it regenerates for next year. If you harvest from the wild, please do so responsibly. Like dandelion, give the roots a scrub and use fresh or dry.
Valerian Root Uses
Valerian can be used as a tea and tincture made in the same manner as dandelion and is most often used as a way to soothe anxiety and promote sleep. It’s exactly how we use it in our home medicine chest – to promote sleep during bouts of insomnia. We keep a bottle of tincture handy and when insomnia strikes, simply put a few drops under the tongue and it usually doesn’t take long before sleep comes.
Cautions: Valerian is generally considered safe but can cause stomach upset in some people. However, it is recommended that pregnant & nursing women avoid Valerian.
Harvesting medicinal roots is easy and a great way to build up the home herbal medicine chest. What roots are you harvesting and using this fall?
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Harvesting Herbal Roots
The first thing I need to do is decide how much root I will be harvesting. This depends on my use of it for the coming year. I usually tincture the fresh root and then add some dried root in towards the end of the tincturing process. I will get what I think I need to make enough tincture to last for the next couple of years. Then I need to decide when to harvest. I don’t want to dig in frozen ground. I also prefer not to dig in really wet soil as the roots will be encased in a ball of mud if the ground is real wet. I pick an easy to dig day and dig up the amount I need. The tincture method I use involves tincturing fresh plant. It will go through the menstruum (alcohol & water used to extract it) twice. This means I will dig up half the root I need now and half the root I need in about a month or two. I want 10 pounds of fresh root. So I dig up 5 pounds now for tincture and another 5 pounds in a month or two. I will also dig up another 2 pounds now t0 dry into 1/2 pound for the dry Valerian I will add later towards the end of the tincturing process.
The roots are very dirty, I shake off as much dirt as I can back into the hole I just dug.
The next thing I have to do is wash it off. Brrr. it is cold out washing roots this time of year. Valerian is hard to clean also. It holds little rocks deep inside its tendril like legs. I spray them with an outdoor hose and then take them inside where I carefully clean them in the sink. I don’t want any rocks or dirt left in. Even though the alcohol I use will kill any bacteria on the root, I still don’t like dirty roots and the rocks could destroy the blades in my blender.
Once clean, I need to cut the roots up. With most herbaceous plant roots, I cut everything up that is not woody. It is all useful. I need them in blender sized pieces for tincture. Many of the Valerian roots can go in whole or just cut in half if small enough. Usually, with Valerian you have to clean it so good that you already cut it up small enough for the blender while cleaning. For the ones I am drying, I cut them up into smaller pieces. How small I cut roots depends on a few factors. If the root is easy to crush or cut up after drying I only need to cut it small enough to dry quickly. However, if a root is stone hard once it dries, I have to cut it to the size I need while it is still fresh. The ultimate use of the root is another factor in how small I cut the roots. Lastly, how difficult it is to dry is another factor. A nutritious root like comfrey tends to grow mold on it if it is not cut thinly or small and dried quickly. With Valerian root, I just chunk up the upper part and don’t worry about the small roots. They are thin and dry quickly in my food dryer or by my wood stove.
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How to Grow and Use Valerian
Let’s talk about how to grow and use Valerian…
Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) is a powerful and very amazing herb. It has very potent medicinal qualities, makes your cats go crazy, and you can even grow it at home.
With pretty pale-pink or white flowers, and long green leaves, it isn’t a bad plant to have in a landscape or garden.
The medicinal part of the plant, however, is in the roots. So even though it is carefree and can get quite tall (up to 4 feet tall), you might not want to plant it in a back row or somewhere difficult to get to. You will need to be able to dig it up for the medicinal roots, so choose the location for your valerian carefully.
So let’s talk about how to grow and use valerian. This plant is a delightful addition to any garden.
Medicinal Uses of Valerian:
For medicinal purposes, Valerian root is good in the following ways:
- It is an excellent remedy for stress, insomnia, and anxiety.
- Valerian is great for healing the nervous system and the digestive system.
- This herb can also be used as a strong and natural sedative and pain-reliever.
- It can be used for headaches (see: my Headache post for more details)
- Valerian can be made into a diluted tea and added to pet food for anxious/restless pets, especially if you are about to travel with the pet, because it calms them. See this post for more details.
There are many ways you can take Valerian for these medicinal purposes. Check out my post to learn how to make a Valerian decoction. Here is another post with various herbal tea recipes for insomnia.
Have you ever taken Valerian for medicine? This is probably my most commonly used herb in our home. I use it for pain relief for headaches and minor aches and pains as well as for my husband’s insomnia.
If you are looking to own some ASAP or you are not interested in growing any, you can buy valerian root at most local health stores or online (like this).
How to Grow Valerian:
**Due to the fact that you need to dig it up for the roots if you want its’ medicinal qualities, you should plant this beautiful herb in a carefully selected location so that you can dig it up easily.
**It is best in zones 4-7, though it is really an easy going plant and you can try it with much success in other zones.
**This is a very unique plant: the roots and plant itself often smells terrible to humans, but the flowers themselves have a light, fragrant scent to them.
**Valerian prefers a large range from full sun to light shade. It will grow up to 4 feet tall, so keep that in mind for the placement of your plant.
**Give your plant moist, well-drained loam soil or compost-rich soil, although it will grow in most conditions.
**Valerian can be propagated very easily by seed (like these). You can either transplant your small plants outdoors in late spring OR you can sow the seeds directly in the soil in the early spring.
**For more plants that you can start growing outdoors in early spring, check out this list.
**Do not let your Valerian plant get dried out. Give it moderate to heavy watering. Mulch will help you keep the moisture levels from getting too low.
**Valerian will self-seed if not maintained. It is up to you if you want it to self-seed. On the one hand, you will get more Valerian next year. On the other hand, you do not have control over where the seeds land and grow. To prevent self-seeding, cut back the plant after it flowers in the summer.
**You CAN grow Valerian in a container, but it needs to be a large enough container for the root system of this plant. Make sure the container’s soil does not dry out. This is a good option for a container that can be big and self-watering.
**Warning: Cats LOVE Valerian, some say they love it more than they love catnip! Make sure your Valerian plants do not get damaged close to the roots, because if the cats smell the roots, they will roll over the plant until it is crushed.
**You harvest Valerian either in the Fall of the first year OR the Spring of the second year. It is nice that there is a choice in this, since you can decide which one works best for your schedule, or harvest some in the Fall and some in the Spring.
**For harvesting, I like to wait until the ground is moist from a rainfall, because it makes the ground soft and it is easier to dig up the roots without losing or damaging them. Gently dig up the plant, digging up as much of the roots as possible. Chop off the flowers/leaves and bring your roots to a sink (outdoor or indoor).
**Gently rinse off the roots until you get all the dirt off of them. Some people do not like the smell of the roots (I don’t mind them, but I am a bit weird about what smells I like). You might want to open windows or use an outdoor sink and possibly wear gloves if you really hate the smell.
**After the roots are cleaned, pat them dry, and then stick them in your preheated oven (at 200 degrees Fahrenheit). Leave the door of your oven slightly ajar, and check on the roots every 15 minutes or so until they are dried.
**Once the roots are dried, you can either store them whole, chopped them up roughly, or grind them into a fine powder. It depends how you plan on using them. I like to chop them up into small-ish pieces to use for teas and decoctions. Some people like to grind them into a powder and take them in capsule form (like these).
Do YOU use or grow Valerian?
**I would love to know how many other people grow and use Valerian like I do. Please leave a comment below and tell me if you use it and/or grow it.
**Otherwise, did you learn something new about how to grow and use valerian? I’d love to hear from you, too!