Valerian is well known for its strong, distinct aroma, which only develops after the roots are dried. One of the most calming and deeply relaxing herbs we know of, valerian is often used in bedtime formulas and sleep pillows.
Botanical name: Valeriana officinalis L.
Botanical Family: Valerianaceae
Common name: valerian
Synonyms: garden heliotrope, garden valerian, fragrant valerian
The Plant: Valerian was used for more than 2,000 years in a variety of ways — including as a food, medicinal herb, perfume and spice. Its modern uses are related to its relaxing effects on people and animals.
The name valerian (which did not come into common use until the 9th or 10th centuries) comes from the Latin word valere, meaning to be well or to be strong. Valerian root was official in The United States Pharmacopoeia from 1820 till 1936. Today, it’s one of the best studied of the traditional healing herbs. It’s also one of the most popular herbal remedies in Europe and the United States.
The common name of valerian is used to denote several species of valerian that are used interchangeably. Mexican valerian (V. edulis), Pacific valerian (V. sitchensis) and Indian valerian (V. wallichii) or (jatamansii) may be found in commerce under the name valerian, so it’s important to check the botanical name when looking for a particular species. European valerian (V. officinalis) is the species commonly used in the United States and Europe. It’s native to Europe and Asia and is naturalized in North America.
A perennial herb, valerian grows six feet tall and has longitudinally grooved, hollow stems, deeply divided leaves, and fragrant, small, white to pink flowers borne in clusters on a flowering stalk. The parts of the plant used as a traditional herb are the below-ground roots, stolons and rhizomes. Valerian is easy to grow and likes a rich, moist soil in full sun or partial shade. It makes an attractive garden plant, but it does easily reseed itself and spread by runners, so it can become a nuisance if not managed.
While older literature claims that valerian should be harvested in the second year of growth, research in the 1990s in the Netherlands demonstrated that valerian constituents are highest when harvested in the fall of the first year.
The distinctive aroma of valerian roots (often described as “stinky socks”) is not present in the fresh roots. The chemical responsible for the unpleasant aroma, isovaleric acid, develops during the drying process and intensifies the longer the root is stored. In fact, the fresh roots have an earthy, sweet and musky aroma. For those who like the effects of valerian but have an aversion to the aroma of the dried herb, growing your own valerian and using it fresh, or tincturing the fresh roots, might be a good alternative.
Constituents of Note: An essential oil, present at 0.01 to 0.06% in dried valerian root, contains 150 different constituents, most importantly bornyl acetate, valerianol, valaranone, camphene, cryptofauronol and valernic acid. Valeopotriates (0.5 to 2.0%) are another important class of constituents in valerian. Also present are around 0.01% of alkaloids and some tannins.
Quality: Because of the dense, fibrous nature of the roots, excess dirt is a major quality problem with valerian. Whole valerian is examined closely for adhering dirt and rocks, and cut and powdered valerian must be acid insoluble ash (AIA) tested to meet a specification of 5% or less.
Valerian root is medium brown to yellow-brown and should have no more than 5% above-ground parts. The aroma is characteristically strong and pungent and is often described as rotten or “like stinky socks.” The flavor is slightly sweet and spicy, with a bitter aftertaste.
Regulatory Status: GRAS (Title 21 172.510) as a flavoring and Dietary Supplement
Did you know? Valerian was once called herbe aux chats or “herb of the cats.” Some cats seem to find the aroma of dried valerian as irresistible as the arom