Garden Valerian is an introduced erect perennial forb growing from 2 to 5 feet on stems that are round but ridged, hollow, and usually with very fine short appressed hairs and longer hairs at the stem nodes. More hair can appear near the base. The root sends up a single stem that is unbranched below the inflorescence.
Leaves are both basal and stem with the basal the largest and upper stem leaves smaller. Stem leaves are widely separated. Leaves are arranged oppositely and are pinnately divided into 7 to 25 lance-like segments that are opposite and sub-opposite on the same leaf with the terminal segment of the leaf sometimes not completed divided (pinnatifid). These leaf segments have one central vein and reticulate veining branching from the mid-vein. Segment edges are indented with coarse teeth on the lower leaves but the upper stem leaf segments may be entire. The segment margin and the underside usually have fine hair, as does the leaf stalk which is ridged on the underside and with a shallow but wide groove on the upper side. The stalk of a stem leaf flares out as a sheath where it meets the stem and meets the stalk of the opposite leaf. Leaves are aromatic (fetid) when crushed.
The inflorescence is a large open branched cluster formed of several dense corymbiform cymes with the inflorescence spreading in width to as much as 3/4 the height of the plant. This is caused by the branches of the inflorescence occuring in pairs, with the next pair at right angles to the prior pair, with the lower pairs lengthening so that their flowers get the same amount of sun as those above. There are linear green bracts, rather large, under each section of the corymb.
The flowers are small, about 5 mm across, 5-parted, somewhat funnel shaped with the 5 petals joined at the bases but then flaring out at the tips, which are rounded. The calyx is whitish green with 5 narrow lobes. Flowers are perfect, with 3 stamens which have white filaments and yellow anthers; the style is single and has a 3-parted tip. The inside of the corolla throat has some fine hairs the same color as the petals. Plants can have two colors of flower corollas - a pink to red shade and white, white much more common. The flowers have a peculiar but not unpleasant smell.
Seed: Fertilized flowers produce a dry ovate seed, ridged, about 1 mm wide at the base and tapering to 1/2 mm at the tip and up to 2 mm long. A feathery pappus can be attached for wind dispersion.
Medicinal use current and ancient: See bottom of page.
Habitat: Garden Valerian has escaped from cultivation into the wild. It prefers moist to damp well drained locations with full sun but can adopt to somewhat dry soils. Partial sun will cause floppy plants. The root system is rhizomatous allowing the plant to form extensive clumps. The rhizomes merge into a conical rootstock, a portion above ground, which sends out stolons, which then can root. This is a plant of temperate climate zones. The root is very aromatic and is the medicinal part of the plant.
Names: The genus Valeriana, is an old medieval Latin name, believed to be derived from the Latin valere, meaning 'to be healthy' as the plant has long been used for treating nervousness and hysteria. The species name officinalis, means 'sold in shops' and is usually used for plants that have medicinal qualities and were dispensed for such use by herbalists. The author name for the plant classification - 'L.' refers to Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), Swedish botanist and the developer of the binomial nomenclature of modern taxonomy. The alternate common name of Garden-heliotrope refers to the supposed idea that the flower clusters turn with the sun but actually refers to the design of the inflorescence branches as explained above. The name 'All-heal' is quite old, going back to medieval times when the plant was thought to cure many maladies, a belief Culpeper expounds on in the notes below. Plant family: Different authorities place this genus in a different family. The University of Minnesota Herbarium (which is usually in agreement with Flora of North America) assign it to the Valerianaceae. USDA places it in the Caprifoliaceae (Honeysuckle) with sub-division Valerianoideae.
Comparisons: There are a large number of Valeriana species in North America, both native and introduced. One other species is known in Minnesota, Edible Valerian, V. edulis. but it is on the State Threatened List. In neighboring Wisconsin there is one additional species - Marsh Valerian, V. uliginosa. Both of these are shorter plants with the inflorescence reduced in size.
Above: The inflorescence. Drawing from Icones Plantarum Medicinaltum.
Below: 1st photo - Detail of a section of the inflorescence - note the small bracts subtending each section. 2nd photo - Flower detail.
Below: A grouping of cymes in the inflorescence.
Below: A large lower stem leaf. Note - the upper section is not fully divided.
Below: 1st photo - detail of leaf upper surface. 2nd photo - detail of lower surface.
Below: 1st photo - an upper stem leaf. 2nd photo - detail of leaf sheath. Note longer hair on node and fine hair on ridged stem.
Garden Valerian has naturalized in North America in the Pacific Northwest and then in the eastern half of the continent from Manitoba east to the coast in Canada and from Minnesota and Iowa east the coast in the U.S., south as far as Ohio, West Virginia and Maryland. Within Minnesota it has been observed in 7 counties: Cook, Dakota, Fillmore, Hennepin, Lake, St. Louis, and Washington.
Medicinal Use: Valeriana officinalis is indigenous to parts of Europe where medicinal use goes all the way back to Galen and Dioscorides. Oils and alkaloids are extracted from the root. In the 20th century, Valerian has been used as a sedative and for restorative affects on the nervous system, in fact, its use as a sleep aid is several thousand years old. This recent paper from Wilkes University explains in more detail modern uses.
In England during the Blitz Valerian was prescribed for soothing the nervous system. In the middle ages the root was also used as a spice and a perfume. Gerard in is Herbal (Ref. #6a) wrote about it and in a discourse on the many applications of Valerian, Culpeper (Ref. #4b) in The English Physician writes:
"Dioscorides saith, that the Garden Valerian hath a warming faculty, and that being dried and given to drink, it provoketh urine, and helpeth the strangury. The decoction thereof taken, doth the like also, and taketh away pains in the sides, provoketh the women's courses, and is used in antidotes. Pliny saith, that the powder of the root given in drink, or the decoction thereof taken, helpeth all stoppings and stranglings in any part of the body, whether they proceed of pains in the chest or sides, and taketh them away. The root of Valerian boiled with liquorice, raisins, and anniseed, is singular good for those that are short-winded, and for those that are troubled with the cough, and helpeth to open the passages, and to expectorate phlegm easily. It is given to those that are bitten or stung by any venomous creature, being boiled in wine. It is of special virtue against the plague, the decoction thereof being drank, and the root being used to smell to. It helpeth to expel the wind in the belly. The green herb with the root taken fresh, being bruised and applied to the head, taketh away the pains and prickings there, stayeth rheum and thin distillations, and being boiled in white wine, and a drop thereof put into the eyes, taketh away the dimness of the sight, or any pin or web therein: It is of excellent property to heal any inward sores or wounds, and also for outward hurts or wounds, and drawing away splinters or thorns out of the flesh."
That discourse is the ultimate description of an 'All-heal'.
References: Plant characteristics are generally from sources 1A, 32, W2, W3, W7 & W8 plus others as specifically applied. Distribution principally from W1, W2 and 28C. Planting history generally from 1, 4 & 4a. Other sources by specific reference. See Reference List for details.
Identification booklet for most of the flowering forbs and small flowering shrubs of the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden. Details Here.
Friends of the Wild Flower Garden, Inc. Text and photos are by G. D. Bebeau unless otherwise credited. "www.friendsofthewildflowergarden.org"