Valerian (Valeriana officinalis, Valerianaceæ ) is a herbaceous perennial native to northern Asia and Europe, it loves damp meadows, stream edges and ditches, however it does grow happily in my flower bed alongside its rather more poisonous brothers and sisters. The white to purple umbels push skyward in the summer months, attaining a height of about three feet, and will happily stand on their own, gently towering over the mass of leaves gathering below.
According to Mrs Grieve; ‘The derivation of the name of this genus of plants is differently given. It is said by some authors to have been named after Valerius, who first used it in medicine; while others derive the name from the Latin word valere (to be in health), on account of its medicinal qualities.’
It is understood to be a useful sedative, antispasmodic and carminative, and it is said, rather contradictorily, to wake those suffering from fatigue. No doubt this is true; one sniff of the dried root could certainly wake me from slumber. I say this about very few plants, but the valerian root is rather stinky. I sat on a bus once with some of the dried root in a brown paper bag, and the scent was so malodorous and strong that I felt compelled to remove myself and my shopping bag contents from the bus, after trying to ignore the pong to no avail. The aroma is rather similar to stale body odour, and of course, the finger could have been pointed at me and not the contents of my bag. It is probably the only plant root that I would recommend placing in a plastic bag above a paper one, and sealing it very tightly in transit.
It is alleged that ‘during the sixteenth century the essential oil was a popular perfume.’ (Chrissie Wildwood The Encyclopedia of Healing Plants,) It appears that the oil is extracted from the root, and so, I am presuming this has been the case throughout history; the mind just boggles at the thought. I just can’t imagine roaming the streets of London smelling of a perfume made from valerian root. Having said that, travelling on the tubes in the metropolis, on a hot steamy summer’s day, does sometimes hold a scent as if many people have taken to this suggestion. I would encourage you to seek out some dried root and sniff; and see what I mean. No; that is rather cruel of me, please don’t.
On a more serious note, it is also indicated to be useful in the treatment of irritable bowel syndrome, period pains, rheumatic pains and migraine, palpitations and reducing the effects caused by high blood pressure.
Catherine Yronwode names the plant ‘Vandal Root’ and indicates that it has a ‘dual reputation for evil and protection.’ It can be used ‘to stop unwanted visitors: sprinkle VANDAL ROOT across your front steps, calling the person’s name, and commanding that he or she be unable to cross over. To make this spell stronger, add BLACK PEPPER and SALT to the mix.’ (Hoodoo Herb and Root Magic) Yep, I think if I got to some ones front door and it smelt of valerian root, I may hesitate to enter.
A plant of the planet Mercury according to Manfred M. Junius and Ellen Evert Hoppman, yet Agrippa places valerian as under the influence of Venus, along with vervain. He states of valerian, it is that ‘which by the Arabians is called phu!’ This, according to Mrs Grieve, is ‘an expression of aversion from its offensive odour.’ Yes pooh is what I say when I open the valerian root jar. All the plants of Venus are said to be sweet scented, which may be why it has been placed under the influence of Mercury, according to more recent penmanship.
However I find Culpeper places valerian under Mercury and Cunningham places it under Venus: so I see that theory flying out of the door along with the unwanted visitors. And then to add further confusion to my already befuddled grey matter, Donald Law places it under Uranus, and states that ‘it has been a standing ingredient of countless aphrodisiacs and love potions.’ Well I never! Not sure I see the link between love potions and Uranus though. Seeing that Uranus wasn’t identified in Culpeper’s time, it is possible that Culpeper may have agreed with Law.
Cunningham places it as feminine and of the element Water: with powers over love, and sleep, and also as an aid in purification and protection. He states ‘The rather ill smelling root, powdered, is used in protective sachets, hung in the home to protect against lightning, and placed in pillows to aid falling asleep’. I could think of much nicer aids to sleep; lavender being one of them. He goes onto say ‘A sprig of the plant pinned to a woman’s clothing will cause men to “follow her like children.” Shall I try that suggestion?.......no I think I will give it a miss.
I do feel one of the problems with Mr Cunningham’s suggestions is that it can become rather confusing. He has placed a comment concerning a sprig, in the middle of those for the use of the root. The flowers of valerian have a relatively pleasant scent, and the leaves appear to be odourless. However he does follow the preceding comment with; ‘Valerian root is also added to love sachets. If a couple are quarrelling introduce some of this herb to the area and all will soon be calm.’ Ok I can see that working, as the cause of the argument is likely to be overshadowed by trying to seek out the source of the stench. He adds that ‘The Greeks hung a sprig of valerian under a window to charm away evil.’ Now are we talking root or plant as in flower and leaf here?
Cunningham finishes with ‘Valerian root, powdered, is sometimes used as “graveyard dust.”’ Ooh, how can that work then? Ellen Evert Hopman clarifies this point for me by stating that ‘It has been used as a substitute for graveyard dust to repel unwanted presences.’ Now that sounds better, doesn’t it?
Professor Henslow gives a curious recipe, quoted in Mrs Grieve, a translation of which runs as follows: '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.' This sounds like a probable origin for Cunningham suggestion for calming a quarrelling couple. However it is the juice that is administered in this case.
Mrs. Grieve caused me to stagger with amazement when she states ‘In the Middle ages, the root was not only used as a medicine, but also as a spice, and even as a perfume.’ and then I find “Take valerian in your mouth and kiss she who you desire, and she will be yours in love right away.” (Beuchert, 1995: 31in Witchcraft Medicine) Oh yuk; do hope they mean the leaf or flower, however the previous quote does go to show how appreciation of different scents has changed over the years.