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.
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 lets 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 ready-made valerian tincture.