Monday, April 11, 2011

Valeriana officinalis - Valerian

Valeriana officinalis - Valerian also know as All-Heal, Great Wild Valerian, Amantilla, Phu, Setwall, Setewale, Capon's Tail.

Origins of this plant's name are various.  It may be derived from the Roman province of Valeria, or from Valerianus, a Roman emperor, or from a certain Valerius who first used the herb as medicine, while other writers believe it came from the Latin word valere (to be in health).  The word Valeriana was not used by classical writers but between the ninth and sixteenth centuries, it went by many names including Phu, Fu, Amantilla, Theriacaria, Marinella, Genicularis and Terdina.  The name Phu comes from an expression of aversion due to its offensive odour.

Dioscorides and Pliny talk of a plant they called the wild nard, which is supposed to be a species of Valerian. There are, in fact, many species of Valerians, all of which manifest the same relaxing medicinal activities to a greater or lesser degree. 

The plant is found throughout Europe and Northern Asia, and is common in England and North America in marshes and along river banks, where its tall stems may generally be seen in the summer towering above the usual herbage. The erect, sturdy growth of the plant, the rich, dark green of the leaves, their beautiful form, and the crowning masses of light-coloured flowers, make the plant conspicuous.

Its erect, hollow, grooved stems can reach 5 feet tall. The whispy leaves are oval and deeply lobed; the paired dark green stem leaves are pinnately divided into five to twelve pairs of toothed leaflets, leaves are progressively smaller toward the top of the stem, the leaf stalks clasping the stem. The central rhizome sends out smaller rhizomes, which grow new plants around the mother plant.

It is an attractive fern-like plant, with fluffy, fragrant, clusters of funnel-shaped white, pink, or lavender flowers that bloom from June to September. They have a somewhat peculiarly sweet smell which some liken to cherry pie.  The foliage has a stinking, putrid odor, especially when handled or disturbed. 

Valerian root is a general tranquilizer used for relieving nervous tension, insomnia, and headaches.  It has been shown to sedate the central nervous system due to the valepotriates and other components found in the essential oil. Valerian decreases muscle spasms, so is useful for cases of nervous digestion, irritable bowel syndrome, and stomach or menstrual cramps.

Valerian contains many types of valeopotriates that have opposing effects, indicating that it has the ability to regulate many conditions.  One study found that it sedated agitated patients and stimulated those suffering from fatigue, bringing about a balancing effect on the system.  Valerian improved the quality of sleep in subjects of another study and also reduced the time it took them to fall asleep, especially the elderly and the habitually poor sleepers, but did not affect their dream recall or ability to wake up in the morning.

In Germany, hyperactive children have been treated with valerian since the 1970s.  After taking valerian for only a few weeks, 120 children diagnosed as hyperactive, anxious, or learning disabled had better muscle coordination and reaction time, and showed less aggression, restlessness, anxiety, and fear.  Valerian may also lower blood pressure and strengthen the optic nerve in the eye, although thus far, only animal studies have been made on this.  Valerian often seems only to work when taken over longer periods (several weeks), though many users find that it takes effect immediately.

Cautions: Valerian is generally considered a safe, non-addictive herb. Studies show that it causes no life threatening side effects when used in recommended amounts. The Food and Drug Administration includes the herb on its list of “generally recognized as safe” foods.  It has been shown to be an effective remedy for the reduction of anxiety but it has also been reported to cause agitation, headaches and night terrors in some individuals.  Large doses or chronic use may result in stomach ache, apathy, and a feeling of mental dullness or mild depression.  Because of the herb's tranquilizer properties, it may cause dizziness or drowsiness, effects that should be considered before driving or operating heavy or hazardous equipment. 

Valerian is sedative to humans, but excites both cats and rodents. In the legend of the Pied Piper of Hamlin, he baited the rodents with valerian to drive them out of the city.  The flowers are used in charm bags to encourage love, protection and sleep.  In medieval Sweden, it was sometimes placed in the wedding clothes of the groom to ward off the "envy" of the elves.

In Herbs and the Earth (1935), Henry Beston says, “It is a rank spreader, and perhaps a little coarse, so I do not recommend putting it among the herbs. It is an excellent plant, however, for use in the left-overs of space one occasionally encounters on the frontiers of garden areas, and for establishing in half wild situations.” Frequent Herb Companion contributor Portia Meares feels the same way, listing valerian among ten otherwise “great herbs” that she’s banished from her formal herb garden. 

Valerian does well in all ordinary soils, but prefers rich, heavy loam, well supplied with moisture. The flowering tops must be cut off as they appear, thus enabling the better development of the rhizome. Many of the young plants do not flower in the first year, but produce a luxuriant crop of leaves, and yield rhizome of good quality in the autumn.

Sow Valerian seeds in spring when the soil has warmed up or plant seedlings or divisions. New seedlings need consistent moisture, grow slowly and need protection from faster-growing weeds.  After a few years growth, dig up and separate very thick stands of plants.  Established valerian seeds freely, self-sows if flowers are left on the plant and can be difficult to remove from the landscape.

Unless you plan to harvest many roots, you may want to plant it in a half barrel or contain it with a sunken barrier. If you plan to harvest roots to use for herbal preparations, clip off the flower stalks to let the plant concentrate on root growth, do not use any chemicals in the garden and wait until the second year to dig up roots. Roots dug in early fall, around the end of September, have the highest concentration of essential oil. 

Valerian puts you to sleep but doesn't cause a morning hangover, interact with alcohol, or lead to addiction.   Although it is potent, it is neither habit-forming nor addictive. Research shows that extracts of the root not only help you fall asleep faster but also improve sleep quality. Despite it's distinctly ripe, and somewhat offensive odor, it continues to be one of the most popular medicinal herbs worldwide. The odor is actually an indicator of the strength of the medicinal properties of the root, the more pungent, the better the quality. Valerian root generally does not lose effectiveness over time.

I dunno about you, but all this sounds very interesting to me.  Having something that might calm stress would be great.  I'm giving this one a try.  I have bought a bottle of  "Herbs for Kids" brand Valerian called "Super Calm," just what I need.  It is a dietary supplement, one ounce bottle with dropper, eight bucks.  I bought this particular one because it was the only one available at the store where I shop.

I will monitor the affects of the valerian on myself, and report how it made me feel, or not feel, as it were.  I'll let you know if it actually made me feel calmer and less stressed, and if it helps me sleep.  A good night's rest is always most welcome. 

Resourses include: 

The Herb Companion:
A Modern Herbal:

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