When I first started studying herbs in high school, I didn’t really understand why anyone would need herbs for sleep. I slept perfectly well, waking up in the morning was the real problem. It wasn’t until college with stress and deadlines that I finally learned the true importance of valerian.
On a foreign study in Italy, I went to visit the Papal Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi. I normally avoid gift shops, but I had heard that the monks in this particular church had an affinity for herbs.
I was not disappointed, and I found a bottle of Valerian tincture. Just what the doctor ordered.
A decade and a half later, I grow my own valerian for homemade tinctures. In growing my own, I’ve had plenty of time to observe the plant’s characteristics.
I’ve also watched as the little aerial seeds are blown around to every corner of my land, just like dandelion seeds. It spreads so easily and loves to grow in both shady and wet soil, so it’s no surprise that it’s colonized the countryside.
Valerian is native to Europe and Asia, but it’s escaped gardens just like mine for hundreds of years and naturalized to much of the United States.
Be aware that there are other plants with a similar growth habit and white flowers that are deadly toxic, namely poison hemlock. It’s important that you take the time to correctly identify valerian if you’re going to harvest it in the wild. I’d also suggest that you always consult 2 sources to make a proper ID of any wild plant. Don’t just take my word for it, or anyone elses.
If you want to practice your identification skills, one of the best ways to get an eye for it is to grow you own valerian using Valerian Seed Packets, and it readily self-sows, so it’ll always be in your garden once planted. Once you see it in your garden, it’s a lot easier to spot in the wild.
Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) is a perennial that readily spreads by seed. It prefers moist soils and tolerates shade, meaning that it’s often found by woods edges and along roadsides in drainage areas.
When the plants are young, they look a bit like wild parsnip. The leaves are lobed and grow in pairs out of the sides of a tall hollow stalk.
The stalks grow quite tall, often 6 feet or more. In midsummer, valerian produces clusters of tiny white flowers.
This is when it’s easiest to find wild valerian. Driving along on back roads, you can spot their telltale flowers.
Valerian flowers are quite different than yarrow or Queen Anne’s lace in appearance, and beyond that, the plants are generally much taller. The flowers are also wonderfully fragrant, and attract plenty of pollinators, much more so than other flowers nearby in my experience.
Every part of the plant is aromatic, from the flowers to the leaves, and especially the root. If you have ever smelled dried valerian root that you purchased for your own homemade herbal medicines, you know what I mean. Valerian root has a very distinctive smell.
To my nose, it smells pleasant but very medicinal. It’s almost like when I smell it I know I’m holding something potent. If you don’t understand, try smelling a bit of purchased valerian root and it’ll all make sense.
Either way, when I pull up wild valerian to harvest the root, I know right away by the smell that I have the right plant.
The root is traditionally the part that is used to make valerian tincture. The mature roots are harvested from 3-year-old plants.
Older plants are easy to identify because they have multiple flower stalks. Those mature plants will produce bigger roots.
If you harvest younger plants, the roots will be smaller, and they’ll only have a single stalk like the root in the picture below.
So let’s review. The leaves come in pairs out of the sides of a tall, hollow central stalk.
The flowers form in white clusters once the plants have reached 3 to 6 feet tall. The flowers sometimes have a pink tinge as well, and they’re sought after by bees.
The roots are stringy and white, and larger on older valerian plants.
Once you’ve harvested a bit of valerian root, it can be a bit tricky to clean. Wash it as best you can to remove clinging dirt.
The roots can be chopped and then submerged in a neutral alcohol to make a valerian tincture while still fresh. Root clusters can also be hung to dry for teas, or to preserve them to make valerian tincture later on.
I’ve found the best way to learn to identify wild valerian is to grow it. If you want to grow your own Valerian, the seeds can be purchased here. The plants put out a lot of seeds, so a pack of 5000 only costs a few dollars.
In the meantime, while you’re waiting for your valerian to grow, you can make valerian tincture with dried valerian root. The process of making a valerian tincture is the same as making an echinacea tincture or burdock tincture.
Or if you prefer, you can purchase a ready-made valerian tincture.
(Always consult your doctor or a clinical herbalist before trying any new herbal remedy, as there’s always the possibility of unintended consequences, allergic reaction, or interactions with other medication. If you’re harvesting wild plant material, make sure you’re 100% confident in your identification and consult multiple sources for your ID. The following is based on my research and experience, but I don’t claim to have any certifications that would qualify me to advise you on your health. Please do your own research and always verify with multiple reputable sources.)
Gary and Debbie
My wife on many occasions has me get up and get her some Valerian root tincture from our fridge so she can get to sleep. I’d sure like to grow it so we can save some money as we are low income. How can I buy some of your seeds and do you ever sell a bottle of tincture? Thank you for your time.
I don’t sell the seeds, but most major seed catalogs carry the seeds to just a few dollars (Fedco, Johnnys Selected Seeds, Strictly Medicinal Seeds). The plants are prolific self sowers once established, and they grow well with neglect.
And how to remove the smell from clothes or other items when it’s there??
Some cats respond to Valerian like catnip, so keep your stash where they can’t get to it.
Oh interesting, good to know!
Isn’t it interesting that cats go crazy over the things that knock us out LOL
I was actually researching something unrelated and followed a link here. I am interested in reading more from you. It would be much appreciated if you could point me in the right direction to find more knowledge on natural self reliance. I live in Maine and I know there is a lot out here in our natural environment that can be used for so many things and I would like to learn more.
There is an unlimited supply of information out there on the subject of self-reliance. I would just suggest picking one skill that you want to focus on and start there. This blog alone has enough information to keep you busy for quite a while.
Thank you for the great site! My valerian is 2 years old now and I don’t want to wait for another year to harvest! I have read that the leaves can also be used in a tincture and are mildly medicinal. Can you verify this?
I don’t personally have experience using the leaves of this plant. I am only familiar with the use of the roots.