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.
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 aroma of catnip, and they will roll around in it ecstatically. One legend has it that rats, too, are attracted to the aroma of valerian and that the Pied Piper of Hamelin actually used valerian to lure the rats out of town instead of his magic flute.
Directions: To use as a before-bedtime tea, it's best to make a cool-water infusion to prevent the volatile oils from escaping: Add one to two teaspoons of valerian root to one cup of room-temperature water. Cover, and let steep for eight hours.
For a hot-water infusion, steep one to two teaspoons of valerian root in one cup of hot (not boiling water). Cover, and let steep until cooled.
Because of a resistance to drinking the tea (which doesn't taste as bad as the herb smells), valerian is often taken in tincture or capsule form. Another way to enjoy the benefits of valerian is in a valerian bath. Simply make a quart of strong tea and add it to the bathwater.
Suggested Uses: Valerian is most known for it ability to promote relaxation at night*. Over 200 studies, most of them in Europe, have been conducted on this characteristic of valerian root. Also notable is the lack of any reported hangover effect the next morning by those who ingest valerian at bedtime. Valerian is also used for restlessness, tight or cramping muscles, nervousness, and as a nerve tonic.
Valerian is often used in combination with other relaxing herbs, such as scullcap or lavender flowers for overall tenseness, passion flower or hops for before-bed use, and chamomile or lemon balm when tenseness is associated with the stomach.
This statement has not been evaluated by the FDA. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.
Caution/Safety: The Botanical Safety Handbook* classifies valerian as:
Class: 1 herbs which can be safely consumed when used appropriately
Per the German Commission E Monograph** for valerian root, there are no known contraindications, side effects or drug interactions.
*Michael McGuffin, ed., American Herbal Products Association's Botanical Safety Handbook, (New York: CRC Press, 1997)
**Mark Blumenthal, ed.,The Complete German Commission E Monographs, (Austin TX: Integrative Medicine Communications, 1998
Origins: Valerian (V. officinalis) in commerce is almost always from cultivated plants. Our non-organic valerian is grown in Poland, and our certified organic valerian is cultivated in the United States or in Europe.