I have been growing valerian (Valeriana officinalis) for years in the medicinal section of my herb garden. Native to Europe and Asia, this calming herb also grows well in North America. Sometimes known as garden heliotrope or nature’s Valium, because of its calming qualities, valerian has been used medicinally since the 4th century. Talk about an herb with an ancient pedigree!
Growing valerian made sense since I was already growing and using other “calming” herbs on my healing herbs list — herbs like chamomile, motherwort, hops, and lemon balm.
This perennial can grow up to four feet tall here in southwestern Ohio. It’s cold hardy through Zone 4. Valerian dies back to the ground in the winter but shoots up new growth in early spring.
Growing Valerian from Seed
Valerian is easily grown from seeds or seedlings. Valerian seeds don’t last long in storage. You’ll want fresh seeds no older than one year.
Seeds can be started indoors four weeks prior to transplanting in late spring. I prefer planting seeds in peat pots filled with a seed starter mix. Place seed onto soil, then cover with a quarter-inch of soil, tamping gently.
Sprinkle evenly with warm water.
Grow lights and fluorescent lights help germination, but a warm environment, with a southwestern facing window, works well, too.
Water as needed. Soil should stay moist but not sopping wet.
When seedlings sprout their second set of leaves, usually within four weeks, they are ready to be transplanted outdoors.
Outdoors Direct Sow
Choose a permanent site for growing valerian seeds outdoors. Take into consideration that valerian can grow up to over five feet, depending upon conditions. I plant mine in the back of the herb garden where it makes a lovely border. Valerian likes a pH of between 5.5 and 7.0.
Plant seeds in fall, or early spring. General garden soil is fine. If your soil is poor, amend it with compost or well-aged manure.
Place seeds gently onto soil, then cover with a quarter-inch of soil, tamping gently. Plant a foot apart and thin later as needed. Water well and keep moist.
Growing Valerian from Seedlings
Growing herbs outside after they reach the seedling stage is easy to do. Regular garden soil is fine, but if you need to amend the soil, do so with compost or well-aged manure. Valerian likes a very moist, well-drained soil.
Space seedlings about two feet apart in the ground. As mentioned, valerian is a large plant, so it needs lots of room. Valerian can send out runners, so keep that in mind when planting. If that happens, simply separate the plants with a spade in spring. In fact, you’ll find when growing valerian, that it may become invasive.
Many folks prefer planting herbs in pots. Growing valerian in pots or other containers is doable.
If you let the plant go to seed, the seed will fall from the plant and produce seedlings in the spring.
My valerian has white flowers; other varieties may have pink flowers. The flowers have a somewhat strong scent, which I think smells a little like vanilla. Other people think the whole plant is strong smelling, but not in a nice way. I will tell you the roots have a strong, somewhat musty odor. I have heard that the odor dissipates once the roots are dry, but that has not been the case with me. They still smell strong! But interestingly enough, when the roots are brewed into tea, the odor goes away, leaving a faintly woodsy, pleasant aroma.
Cut Flowers for Bouquets
You’ll notice when growing valerian, the flowers it produces will be in abundance. I like to cut the flowers for bouquets. This also keeps the plant from going to seed and spreading. Another bonus for keeping the flowers cut is that this can help the roots become more potent medicinally.
If you have several generations of valerian, dig up the older, more mature plants for medicinal use and let the younger ones grow. Older roots have more potency than young ones. (Roots may take up to two growing seasons to be large enough to harvest).
First, start by digging up the whole plant with roots. This is best done in the fall when all the energy has gone back into the roots or very early spring before top growth begins. Clean the roots gently so they don’t bruise, drain, and chop up if you’re drying in a dehydrator or warm oven.
Leave the roots whole if you’re drying them naturally in a warm environment away from drafts and sun. This method takes the longest.
Valerian Plant Uses
Do you have trouble falling or staying asleep? Overstimulatedated after a trying day? Then you’ll welcome valerian as a calming, subtle medicinal. Valerian has many uses, the most popular of which is for a good night’s sleep, sans the grogginess upon awakening that sometimes accompanies sleep aids.
Valerian may have the same effect on cats that catnip does. Our cat, Rain, loves valerian. She will happily roll and loll around in the roots and leaves.
There are various ways to use valerian medicinally. I like to make both teas and tinctures.
Don’t boil the water! If the water is too hot, some of the phytochemicals may be destroyed.
To every eight ounces of hot water (85 degrees F), stir in one of the following:
- 1 tablespoon fresh root
- 1 teaspoon dried root
- 2 tablespoons fresh leaves
- 2 teaspoons dried leaves
- Cover and steep for at least 10 minutes or up to 30, so that all the good nutrients are infused gently into the warm water.
- Strain, and if the tea has cooled too much, simply warm it up a bit.
- After you make it once, adjust the proportions to your liking.
I like to sweeten the tea with raw honey. Sweet dreams!
Valerian tincture is expensive to buy, inexpensive to make. I prefer tincturing the root; some herbalists tincture the flower for a less potent tincture.
Alcohol tinctures last several years in the pantry and are easy to tote. Your body doesn’t need to digest a tincture, so it goes to work right away.
- Fresh or dried valerian root
- Fill a glass jar or bottle halfway up with dried valerian root. If using fresh root, fill the jar all the way up.
- Pour 80 to 100-proof vodka over the root and fill the jar.
- Label with the start date.
- Place in an area away from light, like the pantry. Let mixture steep for four to six weeks. Shake occasionally.
- Strain, squeezing out as much liquid as possible.
- Fill a small medicine bottle that has a dropper cap. Pour the remaining tincture into a glass jar and store in a cool, dark place.
How to Use a Tincture
Put a dropper full into some warm water. The University of Maryland Medical Center suggests that four to six mL is the appropriate daily dose for insomnia.
To make the tincture more palatable, substitute brandy for the vodka.
What’s a Good Substitute for Alcohol?
Try an organic vegetable glycerin. One recipe I found uses 75 percent glycerin and 25 percent water. This tincture lasts up to a year.
Who Should Not Use Valerian
Valerian is contraindicated in pregnant and breastfeeding women, but otherwise is a safe herb for adults to use when needed for stress or sleep-related issues.
Check with your healthcare provider regarding valerian use for children. Again, it is generally considered to be safe, but dosages may be different.
My research indicates side effects are fairly rare.
If an allergic reaction occurs, like a rash, hives, or difficulty breathing, discontinue use.
In some people, valerian has the opposite effect. They become more stimulated instead of becoming calmer. If that happens, discontinue use.
I think common sense comes into play here. You know it’s for you if after drinking the proper dosage, you feel an overall sense of calm and well being. That’s exactly how I feel after enjoying a cup of valerian tea or a dropper full of tincture into warm water.
Legend and Lore
Legend has it that valerian is the herb Peter Piper used to lure the rats out of his town. Supposedly, he rubbed the root all over himself and since valerian is intoxicating to rats, they followed him and his music right out of town! Some cats find valerian root as enjoyable as catnip, so don’t be surprised if you have to push your furry friend out of the way when harvesting valerian root!
Do you grow valerian? We’d love to hear any tips you have on this beautiful and useful herb.