Valeriana officinalis

Family Valerianaceae
Genus Valeriana
Species officinalis

Synonyms and Common names: All-heal, Set-well, English valerian, Belgian valerian, Common valerian, German valerian, Wild valerian, Heliotrope, Garden heliotrope, Fragrant valerian, Vandal root, Capon's tail, Phu (Galen), Amantilla.

Description and Habit: There are over 150 species of Valerian, however only two species are indigenous to Britain, and of the two only Valerian officinalis is used for healing. The ornamental valerian which is often quite a deep red and seen on roadside verges is not officinalis.  The plant is usually quite tall, can be up to 1.5 metres in height, with few leaves up the stem of the plant, gathered in small clusters of pointed leaves the further up the stem the fewer in number.

The flower heads are creamy-white clusters sometimes with a slight tinge of pink. Its habitat is in damp places, ditches, marshes, riversides, but it will grow in dry places if planted there but will be less profuse.

The root or rhizome is quite small, giving off small runners, it propagates by throwing seed from the tufts of flowers, and if left alone will happily scatter seed everywhere. Seeds are small and have small hairs to allow them to fly with the wind.

Parts Used:  Root or rhizome.

Collection and Preparation: As it’s the rhizome that required, cutting off the flowering head is useful, as this helps to develop the rhizome, so cut the flower head as it begins to open.  Some Valerian plants don’t flower until their second year, the first year they will provide small, luxurious leaves and a good root system, so leave the herb until the second year when the root system will be much more advanced and worthy of sacrificing the plant.  When it’s the root or rhizome that’s required, only ever dig up half of what you have or find, this will leave enough for next season and will replenish rather than eradicate the herb altogether.

Dig up the rhizome around September, October, wash it and cut off all the small fibrous roots. Wash and dry it in a dark warm place, and then chop it into small pieces and keep it in a container that’s dark, damp-free and closed to the air.

Constituents:  1% volatile oil (including valerianic acid, isovalerianic acid, valerenone, valerenal, hydroxyvaleric acid, citronellyl isovalerate, borneol, pinene, camphene, methyl-2-pyrrole ketone and assorted sesquiterpenes), epoxy iridoid esters (valepotriates, including valtrate and didovaltrate, which are rapidly lost during storage), glycoside (valerosidatum), volatile pyridine alkaloids (valerine, valerianine, actinidine, chatinine), choline, flavonoids, sterols, phenolic acids, sugars, fixed oil, resin, gum.

Actions:  Sedative, relaxant, mild anodyne, hypnotic, spasmolytic, carminative, hypotensive, expectorant, diuretic, warming.

Indications: Hysterical states, excitability, insomnia and disturbed sleep patterns, hypochondriasis, migraine, cramp, intestinal colic, rheumatic pains, dysmenorrhoea. Specifically indicated in conditions presenting nervous excitability.

Therapeutics and Pharmacology: Valerian is used to reduce tension and anxiety, over-excitability and hysterical states. It has a remarkable influence on the cerebrospinal system, is calming without exerting too sedative an effect and is non-addictive.

It is a valuable treatment for insomnia, the sedative effect due to the valepotriates and the isovaleric acid, which is also responsible for the characteristic smell of valerian.

The valepotriates have a regulatory effect on the autonomic nervous system - one fraction has a suppressant effect, another a stimulant one, so that in combination they have an amphoteric effect. The valepotriates have an antispasmodic action too, making the herb an appropriate remedy where the pain is associated with tension.  It helps relieve dysmenorrhoea and it can be of benefit in migraine and rheumatic pain. It may also be applied locally as a treatment for cramps and other muscle tensions. Valerian is used in many remedies for insomnia but doesn’t display any of the side effects usually found in products normally prescribed by the physician.

Mixed with passionflower and hops for insomnia as a relaxing warm infusion before bedtime

As an infusion with Skullcap for the relief of tension, anxiety and headaches.

Valerian works well with Cramp Bark for the treatment of cramps.

Shingles are caused by a viral infection, combine Valerian, Echinacea, Jamaican Dogwood, Oats, Passion Flower and St. Johns Wort, made into an Infusion, and drunk 3 times a day. Bathing in this also works to alleviate the symptoms of Shingles.

Valerian calms the heart, helping to control palpitations.

Valerian combined with St Johns Wort is effective in combating depression.

Contradictions:  Although Valerian will aid restful sleep with no morning after heaviness or effects, the dosage must be controlled as overdosing on Valerian can lead to headaches and lethargy.

Preparation and Dosage:
Infusion: Pour a cup of boiling water onto the herb and leave to infuse for 10 to 15 minutes, to be drunk when required but not more than 3 times a day.
Tincture: 2-4ml of the tincture taken 3 times a day.

Additional comments and Folklore: Valerian was known as ‘heal-all and set well’ to our ancestors. It was used to strengthen the eyesight, as a cough medicine, to heal infected wounds and to resist the plague.
The ancient Greek writers called it ‘Phu’ in allusion to its smell, and in the 16th c. it was put in among bed linen, possibly to induce restful sleep rather than to give a pleasant smell.

Cats are attracted to valerian, which can induce a state of ecstasy in them. Rats, too, are attracted by it, and it was used in the past as bait by rat-catchers. According to legend, the Pied Piper of Hamlin, with the assistance of the odorous valerian root, lured the town's rats to the river to drown.  The odour of the fresh herb is strong, when dried it's even stronger and isn’t pleasant to smell or to taste, adding honey makes the herb a little more palatable.

Dioscorides and Galen extolled valerian as an aromatic and diuretic. Its name may derive from Valerius, (a Roman Emporer AD 306) who first used it medicinally; or possibly from the Latin valere, to be in good health. The early European herbalists valued valerian for its expectorant and diuretic properties. During the Second World War, shell-shock and 'bombing neurosis' were treated with valerian.

Valerian's greatest use is for the treatment of insomnia, it is an ingredient in many over the counter medicines for this complaint.