Feeling anxious or having a hard time catching some zzz’s? Then valerian might be the plant for you! Nicknamed the “herbal valium,” the root of this perennial has been ground up into a powder and used as a sleep aid and mild sedative since the time of the ancient Greeks. The lovely little white and/or pink flowers of this plant were also traditionally used in perfumes; however, this practice has lost its momentum since, nowadays, most folks say valerian flowers smell like old gym socks or even manure: ick! While the aroma may not be the most pleasing, the flowers of this plant will still attract beneficial insects to your garden, making it a worthwhile addition to your herbaceous ‘hood even if you have no need for its healing properties.
Although there are hundreds of species within the Valeriana genus, Valeriana officinalis, or Garden Valerian, is the one most often used for medicinal uses. Although this plant will produce flowers within the first year, the root will not be ready to harvest until the following season, so be patient if growing this herb for its powerful roots! It’ll be well worth it.
Seed: This plant will grow from seed, but be sure to use seeds that are less than a year old for optimal germination.
Seed Depth: Gently press into soil surface.
Space Between Plants: 12–24″
Space Between Rows: 24–36″
Germination Soil Temperature: 65–68°F
Days for Germination: 7–21
Sow Indoors: 6 to 8 weeks before average last frost.
Sow Outdoors: 2 to 4 weeks before average last frost or when plants have developed their second set of leaves.
Vegetative: Growing valerian from seed can be tricky as seeds must be very fresh (i.e., less than a year old), and even then, germination rates can be sporadic. We recommend growing valerian from root cuttings instead.
Root Cutting Depth: 2–4″ below soil surface.
Space Between Plants: 12–24″
Space Between Rows: 24–36″
Sprouting Soil Temperature: 50–65°F
Days for Sprouting: 7–14
Sow Outdoors: 2–3 weeks following average last frost.
This herb is very frost tolerant and is considered hardy in USDA Zones 4 through 9. Within these climate zones, plants will die back in the winter but will emerge again hardy and healthy in the following spring. Plants will suffer if they are exposed to extreme frosts when very young, so although you may plant outdoors before average last frosts, cover plants if experiencing long bouts of unseasonably cold spring weather.
Natural: Full sun or partial shade in warmer weather. Does best when exposed to light for at least 6 hours a day.
Artificial: Fluorescent bulbs will provide adequate lighting for valerian starts. Expose plants for at least 8 hours a day for optimal growth.
Soil: A non-fussy plant, valerian will grow in most media but prefers loamy, well-draining soil.
Soilless: Seeds will germinate in most soilless mixes but prefer those that contain coco coir and/or perlite.
Hydroponics: Can be grown in hydroponic systems and does particularly well in nutrient film technique systems.
Aeroponics: Will do well in aeroponic systems. Some studies have even suggested that valerian grown in aeroponic systems produces higher levels of essential oil.
Water: Prefers high levels of water, so ensure that soil does not dry out, especially in higher temperatures.
Nutrients: This herb is a relatively heavy feeder, so adding composted manure or a balanced nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium fertilizer to the soil prior to planting will help your plants grow.
Pruning: Will self-sow, so to avoid valerian taking over your garden, remove flower heads when they start to fade in color. If you are propagating valerian for its roots, cut off all flowers as they emerge to encourage root growth.
Mulching: A layer of organic mulch in cooler climates such as wood chips or straw will help protect the plant throughout harsh winters, allowing it to grow back in the spring.
Note: If you have outdoor cats, they may dig up the plant since valerian has a similar effect on them as catnip.
Rotation: Rotate valerian with nitrogen-fixing plants, such as legumes, every three to four years.
Companions: Grows well with other herbs such as mint, bee balm, chamomile, and calendula.
Harvest: Roots may be harvested approximately a year after the first planting in either the spring or fall. If your plants are quite hardy, you may harvest portions of the root system instead of the whole plant. To harvest, dig up root system using a shovel or spade approximately a foot from the base of the plant. Pull gently by the stalk and shake of excess dirt. Leaves may be also harvested throughout the season and used in teas. Be sure to leave approximately 2/3 of the plant at all times to keep the plant healthy.
Storage: Roots and leaves do not keep well fresh.
Fun Fact: This herb is a major attractor for cats and is rumored to attract vermin as well. In fact, some legends have it that the Pied Piper may have even stuffed his pockets with the herb to lure the rats out of Ireland!
Preserve: Drying the root and leaves is the best way to store this herb. To store the root, rinse and place on a paper towel to dry. Place in a dehydrator or in the oven at 200°F until roots become brittle. Crush into a powder or store in an airtight container for future use. To dry the leaves, simply hang upside down by their stems in a warm, dry location.
Prepare: Due to its scent, valerian is not commonly used in cooking. To make tea using the root, crush into a powder and place approximately 1 tsp in a tea ball or piece of cheesecloth and let steep in hot water for ten minutes. To make tea using the leaves, follow the same procedure but only steep leaves for five minutes or so.
Valerian root can also be turned into a tincture. To make, fill a jar half full with the dried root and then fill the jar with an 100 proof alcohol such as vodka. Cap your jar and place it in a dark place for 4 to 6 weeks, shaking the jar once a week. Place cheese cloth over the mouth of the jar and strain the alcohol into another jar. Take 1 to 2 teaspoons of tincture before bed to help aid with sleep.
Medicinal: The roots and leaves of this plant have been used historically for numerous maladies such as insomnia, anxiety, headaches, and pain. Studies vary in their conclusions regarding its efficacy, however, so consult your physician before using valerian for any of the above conditions.
Warnings: As valerian is considered a sedative, do not take before driving a car or operating dangerous machinery. Valerian should also not be taken while drinking alcoholic beverages or taking barbituates. Consult your physician before using this herb for prolonged periods of time.
For more details on how to take valerian, check out this recipe for valerian tea.