By Jerri L. Cook
Growing valerian is easy but this beneficial plant has specific needs. Learn how to control growth while harnessing valerian benefits.Every gardener has rules about what they will and will not plant in their garden. I know some folks with complicated rules about spacing and companion plants, and others with notions about keeping perennials separate from annuals. I’m not one of those gardeners. I only have one rule. If it’s free, I’ll take it. No matter what it is. Even if I’ve never heard of it. If you’re offering, I’m accepting. All my neighbors, friends and relatives know this. I’m the go-to person if you need to get rid of something you have too many of or, if like my neighbor Ann, you’re dividing some wicked-rooted perennials.
Every gardener has rules about what they will and will not plant in their garden. I know some folks with complicated rules about spacing and companion plants, and others with notions about keeping perennials separate from annuals. I’m not one of those gardeners. I only have one rule. If it’s free, I’ll take it. No matter what it is. Even if I’ve never heard of it. If you’re offering, I’m accepting. All my neighbors, friends and relatives know this. I’m the go-to person if you need to get rid of something you have too many of or, if like my neighbor Ann, you’re dividing some wicked-rooted perennials.
In mid-November, Ann showed up with a bag stuffed full of freshly dug roots from her garden. She had started growing valerian a few years before, and now the plants had become uncontrollable, propagating by seed and forming thick, horizontal roots and unwieldy ascending fibrous roots. While truly grateful for the abundance, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with 10 pounds of valerian root. Ann told me to wash it off and then slice it up for drying, but as I began that process, it became apparent that I didn’t have near enough drying racks for the job. Since I can’t stand to see a resource go to waste, and I didn’t know anyone else who would want more than one root, I decided to try something different.
I trimmed the small, fibrous roots off of each crown that Ann had placed in the bag, leaving the large root and crown intact. I washed the small roots well and then spread them on my kitchen drying rack. Then, with some help from my husband, I replanted the crowns and placed them under a small grow light we use for starting plants in the spring. We set the timer on the light for 18 hours of light and six hours of darkness. Less than a week after the replanting, the crowns were showing significant new growth. While it is a success, replanting the growing valerian crowns does pose a couple of problems.
Because we did it in the winter using artificial lighting, we have committed ourselves to keeping these plants under the light until spring. We usually don’t keep the lights on for more than a couple of months. The replanted roots also take up more space than seedlings, so we will have a space issue come spring. However, we have an upper room with an excellent southern exposure, so we’re hoping that when it comes time to start our regular seedlings, the growing valerian will be established enough to be moved from the artificial light to the natural light before growing herbs outside.
To thrive, valerian likes full sun with some afternoon shade. It’s not going to do well planted among shade-loving perennials like ferns. Likewise, planting it in full sun will also cause the plant to be stressed. The good news is that valerian isn’t all that particular about what kind of soil it grows in. As long as the pH is at least 5.5, you’re good to grow. Most people don’t have any problems at all growing valerian, it’s controlling it that gives gardeners the most headaches.
Valerian seeds are as hardy as they come, and valerian flowers produce prolific amounts of seeds. If you don’t cut the flowers on a regular basis, it won’t be long before you’re dropping off bags of roots at your neighbor’s house like Ann. The more seeds that fall to the ground and germinate, the more roots you’re going to have to thin down the line.
If you like planting herbs in pots, you might also want to avoid porches, decks and other places where people are likely to gather when considering where to plant valerian. Don’t let the little pink flowers fool you. While they smell just fine, the leaves and root of this plant have a pungent smell. Some people don’t mind it at all. To others, the scent is reminiscent of sweaty feet. Keep this in mind if you’re thinking about growing valerian where you entertain. The last question anyone wants a guest to ask is, “What is that awful smell?”
Like most people, I use valerian root as a calming agent and sleep aid. It’s been recognized by the scientific community as an effective aid for people who have trouble getting to sleep. While there is no concrete scientific evidence to show it is effective, people also use valerian root to relieve anxiety, an upset stomach, and other symptoms associated with high levels of stress. When I’m having trouble sleeping, I simply place a couple of the small dried roots in a cup with a little chamomile, and it’s off to dreamland in no time.
If you don’t want to dry your valerian root, you can make a tincture from the fresh root. To make a tincture, use the thick root. Wash the roots and cut them so they will fit into a Mason jar. Once the fresh roots are in the jar, fill it with the highest proof clear liquor you can get your hands on. Put the jar somewhere out of direct sunlight, and let it sit for at least two weeks, a month is preferable. To make the tincture, remove the pieces of root from the jar, saving the remaining liquor for another batch of roots.
Place the liquor-soaked roots in a food processor until it’s mashed. Use a cheesecloth to strain the liquid from the mashed root. This is your tincture. Store it in a small container with a dropper. A few drops in a cup of warm water two-hours before bedtime will help you ease into a restful sleep.
Just because it’s natural and on a healing herbs list doesn’t mean that valerian doesn’t pose health risks. If taken with prescription drugs like Xanax, Valium or Seconal, it could cause severe adverse reactions. You shouldn’t take valerian before talking with your doctor if you’re being treated for certain sleep-disorders or have liver issues. If you’re not sure about how valerian may interact with a specific drug, call your doctor’s office and ask. Nearly all doctors have access to a Physician’s Desk Reference for Herbal Medicines and can easily find information about adverse interactions caused by herbal medicines.
While valerian root acts as a sedative in humans, that’s not the effect it has on cats. For cats, valerian is a stimulant. They love the stuff as much as catnip, maybe more. The bag of crowns Ann brought over sat in the mudroom for a couple of days before I got around to trimming the fine roots. In that time, our kitten rarely left its side. She played with it, purred around it, tried to pull the crown out of the bag. It turns out that if you have an obese cat that could stand a little exercise, you should let them gnaw on some fresh roots. They like to eat it, and it will make them more active. Just don’t let them eat it at night unless you enjoy the sound of kitty feet tearing up and down the stairs at three in the morning.
Because of its thick root system, we’ve decided to plant our free valerian plants near a natural ditch that has recently began to erode. The roots will help keep the soil in place, and it’s far enough away from the house that the smell won’t be an issue. When it’s time, we’ll dig some up and look for a neighbor to give some to, maybe a neighbor with some lazy barn cats.
Have you tried growing valerian? Do you have any tips to share?
Originally published in Countryside July/August 2016 and regularly vetted for accuracy.