Valerian (Valeriana officinalis, Caprifoliaceae) is a perennial flowering plant, with heads of sweetly scented pink or white flowers that bloom in the summer and can reach a height of 1.5 metres (5 ft). Valerian flower extracts were used as a perfume in the 16th century.
Native to Europe and parts of Asia, valerian has been introduced into North America. The flowers are frequently visited by many fly species, especially hoverflies of the genus Eristalis. It is consumed as food by the larvae of some Lepidoptera (butterfly and moth) species including the grey pug.
Other names used for this plant include garden valerian (to distinguish it from other Valeriana species), garden heliotrope (although not related to Heliotropium), setwall and all-heal (which is also used for plants in the genus Stachys). Red valerian, often grown in gardens, is also sometimes referred to as “valerian”, but is a different species (Centranthus ruber) from the same family and not very closely related.
The amino acid valine is named after this plant.
Valerian has been used as a medicinal herb since at least the time of ancient Greece and Rome. Hippocrates described its properties, and Galen later prescribed it as a remedy for insomnia. In medieval Sweden, it was sometimes placed in the wedding clothes of the groom to ward off the “envy” of the elves. In the 16th century, the Anabaptist reformer Pilgram Marpeck prescribed valerian tea for a sick woman.
John Gerard‘s Herball states that his contemporaries found Valerian “excellent for those burdened and for such as be troubled with croup and other like convulsions, and also for those that are bruised with falls.” He says that the dried root was valued as a medicine by the poor in the north of England and the south of Scotland, so that “no broth or pottage or physicall meats be worth anything if Setewale [Valerian] be not there.”
The seventeenth century astrological botanist Nicholas Culpeper thought the plant was “under the influence of Mercury, and therefore hath a warming faculty.” He recommended both herb and root, and said that “the root boiled with liquorice, raisons and aniseed is good for those troubled with cough. Also, it is of special value against the plague, the decoction thereof being drunk and the root smelled. The green herb being bruised and applied to the head taketh away pain and pricking thereof.
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