Does that line sound familiar? Can you believe it's been 20 years since Fight Club became the most iconic book (and film) of a whole generation?
While Jack's insomnia issues went far beyond the scope of natural healing and serious treadmill time, Jack's Complacent Doctor was on to something. Valerian root is best known for its relaxing, sleep-inducing properties. Among the many herbs that claim to reduce stress, this one leads the pack.
In a story that, as part of its examination of society, derides instant gratification and consumerism, the comment about valerian (even if made by a doctor who's kind of a jerk) does stick out as an alternative to heavy-duty, take-it-and-fix-it prescription drugs.
We at Seed Needs love to make cultural references in our posts, even if we have to butcher them a bit to make them fit into our own agenda... which is, of course, enabling our customers to take control of their health, lives, and sanity by growing their own herbs, vegetables, and pretty, pretty flowers.
Valerian's Origins: From Vulgar Poo to a Healthy Chew
Long before Fight Club's author Chuck Palahniuk hit the scene, Valeriana officinalis was a hit with Hippocrates and his gang of medical pioneers. Back then they called true valerian Phu vulgare.
Phu, as luck (as far as our immature selves are concerned) would have it, refers to one's reaction when they get a whiff of valerian root...which non-human-fat-based soapmaker Haley Maxwell describes as smelling like rotten dog's feet. Could phu—pronounced poo—be the origin of "phew?" Or, for that matter, the colloquial for...well, you know...?
Something to ponder, for sure.
The origins of the name Valeriana have been hotly debated over the centuries, with some claiming that the plant was named for a district within the Roman Empire's province of Pannonia named Valeria. Others believe the name comes from the Latin word valere, meaning"healthy", or after the Latin writer Valerius Maximus.
Valerian is mentioned in ancient Greek writings only as Phu vulgare. It's first called "Valeriana" in Latin botanical texts beginning in the 10th century, and thereafter it remained the herb's botanical name.
Valeriana officinalis is native to most of Europe (including England) and western Asia and has naturalized far beyond its home range. Sometimes called "garden heliotrope" and "all heal", the herbaceous perennial's specific name, officinalis, designates it as an "apothecary herb." And V. officinalis, rather than its many variants, is the herb used for medicinal purposes.
Valerian in Herbal Medicine: OOPS! We Already Used The Most Appropriate Header for This Section Way Up There in the Title
As you probably already know, growing valerian from seed is often done for its root. It can be chewed, dried and powdered, made into teas, and extracted for its oils. It's leaves when crushed, were once used as a poultice to relieve headaches.
We wonder if Mr. Palahniuk knew that valerian extract was used to effectively throw a bucket of water over a couple guys brawling in an alley.
"Men who begin to fight and when you wish to stop them, give to them the juice of Amantilla id est Valeriana and peace will be made immediately."
We also wonder how those standing on the sidelines managed to get these guys to chug the concoction. Would they say, "Oy! Have a sip of ale! There you go, good chap...carry on!" and then grin when the brew kicked in, causing the medieval bros to hug it out?
Today, valerian products are widely used in European natural medicine, and here in the U.S., it's generally considered safe by the Poohbahs that Be. Pure valerian and other herbal remedies fall outside the regulatory realm of the Food and Drug Administration and therefore aren't directly approved, but the FDA does approve products containing valerian. For Big Brother's informative take on Valeriana officinalis, visit the National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements fact sheet.
Following are the common anecdotal uses for valerian, and the maladies it treats:
- Insomnia (duh)
- Antispasmodic (muscle cramps, epilepsy)
- Reduction of blood pressure associated with stress
- Mental strain (we'll be taking some after doing all that "origin" research)
- Pain associated with hazing-related chemical burns
- Tumors named Marla
- General pain relief
- Restlessness associated with ADHD
We've found a few easy-to-make recipes for valerian-based home remedies:
HomeMade Sleep Potion: Passionflower and Valerian Tincture: Here's the gist of it: Take equal parts dried passionflower and dried valerian root; grab some 50% proof vodka. Toss the herby stuff and do some shots. Pass out. (OK, just kidding, but it's almost that simple, and certainly more fun.)
As with all over-the-counter or herbal medicines, you'll want to consult your doctor before using valerian, especially if you're pregnant or nursing, or you're a kid under the age of three. If you're the latter, tell your parents to lock up their medicine cabinet, for cryin' out loud.
Since valerian is supposed to make you drowsy, hold off on driving or operating heavy machinery.
Valerian, like St. John's Wort, may interact poorly with medications prescribed for mental wellness, so be sure to check in with your doc to avoid problems. But remember what Uncle Chuck wrote: "On a long enough timeline, the survival rate for everyone will drop to zero."
Valerian in the Garden: A Beautiful, Unique Snowflake
If the world's financial infrastructure crumbles, Valeriana officinalis is one medicinal herb you don't want to be without. In the meantime, you can enjoy valerian as a showy garden ornamental. While some plants prompt gardeners to pop benzos to maintain their sanity, valerian—which was the go-to chill medication before Valium hit the market—is extremely hardy and easy to grow.
Growing Zones: Valerian does best as a hardy, frost-tolerant perennial in zones 4 through 7. It's perfect for gardens at cool, moderate elevations or in maritime zones, and it easily regrows each spring.
Sunlight Requirements: Valerian prefers full sun, but tolerates dappled sunlight or partial afternoon shade. (Missouri Botanical Garden advises that too much shade causes "floppy" stems.) Valerian is commonly found in open-canopy woodlands.
Watering Requirements: Valeriana officinalis prefers consistently moist soil. It's a good plant to grow near downspouts or on the edges of natural ponds.
Soil Preferences: Average, neutral to alkaline well-drained soil.
Plant Size: Valerian needs a lot of room. It typically grows up to five feet in height and over three feet wide.
Growth Habit: Valerian is an upright plant, growing from a wide, clumping base.
Foliage: Valerian has glossy green, opposite foliage with 7 to 10 pairs of compound leaflets.
Flowers: Clusters of showy, tiny white or pink flowers bloom above upright, hollow stalks from June to early August.
Aroma: Some people find that valerian root's odor is flat-out disgusting, but others describe its fragrance as somewhat "mossy". Some things in life are subjective! There's no argument that the flowers are wonderfully fragrant with a sweet, sugary aroma.
Companion Plants: Plant it wherever you want, noting its "special benefits" below.
Pests and Diseases: Valerian isn't particularly prone to any pests, plant viruses, or fungi.
Invasiveness: Valerian easily reseeds itself, and spreads through rhizomes. Keep its roots in check by digging them out or harvesting them if they grow beyond your desired area.
Special Benefits to the Garden: Valerian leaves are considered a "compost booster", and the herb attracts earthworms, pollinators, and pest-predating insects. Valerian plants also attract rodents and cats, so some gardeners use it to lure roving pests away from more delicate plantings.
Valerian leaves are high in phosphorus and you can make "fertilizer teas" from crushed leaves to feed other plants.
Growing Valerian from Seed
Sowing Time: We recommend starting your valerian seeds 6 to 8 weeks before your last frost and transplanting your immature plants soon afterward.
Sowing Depth: Valerian seeds require sunlight to germinate, so plant in peat pots filled with fine, damp soil. You can transplant seedlings, pots and all, in the garden to reduce root damage.
Plant Spacing: Plant, thin, or transplant your valerian at 18" to 24" intervals from one another or from neighboring plants.
Germination: Seedlings should emerge 7 to 21 days at 65 to 70°F.
Maintenance: Stress-free gardening at its best: You don't need to coddle this plant, other than to take steps to contain it within your preferred boundaries. Unless your soil is particularly poor, it doesn't require additional fertilization.
Harvesting: Valerian spends its first year developing its root system. Wait until your plants are at least two years old before you carefully dig them out. The best time to do this is in early spring or in the fall. We recommend that if you decide to dry them (see below) that you do so outside, in an airy area away from cats and other critters who might be attracted to the very same odor you don't want wafting around the inside of your home. Once the roots are dried, they're less pungent.
Storage: Many herbalists recommend chopping fresh valerian roots and preserving them in high-potency vodka rather than drying them. The latter is best done if you plan to grind and use the roots for tea.
This Is Your Life, and It's Ending One Minute at a Time
That's why you don't want to waste a season on those dusty, bargain-priced, past-their-prime junky seeds strategically placed to appeal to your impulsive consumerism. If you're going to make a purchase, make sure it counts! Walk right past that dusty hardware store bin next to the cash register, and contact us at Seed Needs. Check out our wide selection of non-GMO, open-pollinated vegetable, herb, and ornamental seeds. We only sell the freshest, most robust seeds, keeping only as much stock on hand than we can expect to sell in a season.
Because, you know, life isn't about accumulating stuff. It's about doing stuff.
And since we are all part of the same compost pile, our mission isn't just to help you feed your families with healthy, homegrown veggies and herbs, but we're helping to sponsor 25 kids living in third-world countries through donations that wouldn't be possible without your support and the services provided by Compassion International and Childfund.org.Life begins when we choose to nurture those living plants, people, and critters who share our world, so we'll leave you with this final quote: "Prove you're alive. If you don't claim your humanity you will become a statistic. You have been warned."