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Valerian - Botany

Valerian is characterised by its woody, shrub-like appearance, replete with slightly hairy, somewhat dentated, pinnate compound leaves that amount to some five to six leaves per stem. Valerian is uncanny in that it has a habit of growing from an otherwise normal-looking root, which, upon maturity become something of a rhizome in nature, which allows it to remain in a state of stasis until ample conditions for growth are met. The leaves and branches of the plant all stem from one singular hollow primary stem that grows directly from the root-system, and later branches out into normal systems that later bear leaves, and ultimately, flowers. This stem is characterised by its rough, rounded texture, and for its apparent hairiness, which is more pronounced at the basal area than it is elsewhere, (a trait later evidenced by the leaves itself), and for its relative delicacy of nature that belies a surprising resilience against some types of natural damage. Valerian grows to no more than some two to four feet in length in nature and is considered something of a low bush, but is notable for the growth of surprisingly beautiful inflorescence of an often pale-white, ivory-white, or slightly pinkish hue, although examples of flesh-hued pink-tipped flowers have also been known to occur. The flowers blossom from between the midsummer months (May - June) until well into the near-Autumnal months of September; these flowers are small, and often grow in clusters or clumps arising from a singular stem that terminates in a singular corolla from which the florets spring. It is often noted for its somewhat peculiar, albeit not at all unpleasant aroma which is redolent of very light musk or some near-indescribable evanescent spiciness sometimes even confused for, or compared to vetiver (Chrysopogon zizanioides). Valerian is something of a puzzling plant in that while its inflorescence possesses a degree of fragrance that borders on earthy, the leaves, stalks, and the rest of the plant constituents itself possesses a very palpable off odour that is redolent of new spring rain, or of socks that have been left too moist. Because of its distinctive smell, valerian is often referred to as the 'lotus of the West' or, alternately, as a 'musk plant'. Valerian grows in semi-moist environments, although the most potent varieties grow in dry soils, as the essential oils present in the plant's systems (especially the roots) is more concentrated. [1]

Valerian - History

Valerian is a medicinal herb that has a long-standing history of use in both Eastern and Western alternative medical practices. Long thought to have been a native of Asia, it may have also grown endemically in Europe and some parts of the Americas until its latter introduction throughout a wide area of the North Americas sometime in the early to latter part of the 1500s or perhaps even earlier. Valerian may have been introduced to areas outside of its normal growth range due to various factors, perhaps chiefly natural (i. e. cross-pollination, introduction of plants via wildlife carriers), but more often than not, it is due to the presence of humans who may have brought the plant with them either knowingly or unknowingly, through migration or colonisation of an area.

The name of the plant itself is surprising in that it originates from a Roman cognomen (family name) or a Roman praenomen (common name) - Valerian or Valerius, from the name Valeria, originating from the Latin verb valere, which meant strength, health, or virility (i. e. to be strong, hale, virile), suggesting a well known if not altogether widespread usage in Roman times. The earliest records of valerian's use as a medicinal plant dates back to the time of the Ancient Greeks, eventually being adopted into the pharmacopoeia of the Early Romans even before their conquest and eventual assimilation of Greek culture, chiefly due to trade and interactions with Grecians themselves. In the East, valerian, referred to as xie cao also had long-standing use by the Chinese herbalists of the early Zhou Dynasty (circa 770 BC - 246 BC), with practices and usage evolving until well into the height of the Ming Dynasty and onwards, eventually becoming a staple of the Chinese natural pharmacopoeia. The use of valerian in the East soon spread to Japan and was integrated in Japanese kampo herbal medicine, and further, into Korea, and later, Malaysia and Singapore, although its usage in the two latter areas are not as deeply seated as in China and Japan. [2]

Valerian may have been used in pre-Mediaeval Europe for medicinal purposes via practices perhaps gleaned from the then occupying Roman forces, although such practices eventually declined in popularity by the time of the Dark Ages, with the height of valerian's medicinal use in Western annals probably dating to the High Middle Ages, declining during the Dark Ages, and possibly experiencing a resurgence sometime during the middle of the Renaissance or earlier. The plant's use as an herbal medicine declined somewhat well into the height of the Industrial Revolution, albeit with a recent resurgence in recent times thanks to the growing revival of interest in herbal or alternative medicinal practices. While valerian still remains somewhat strongly popular in Traditional Chinese Medicine recipes, its usage in modern Western alternative medicine has become somewhat limited of late due in part to several hundred years of having been in disuse.

Valerian - Herbal Uses

Valerian has long been used as a medicinal herb since the time of the Ancient Greeks, usually prepared as a tisane, or otherwise steeped in wine and drunk. The practice was later adopted by the Early Romans, although the Roman culture had a preference for the herb's active constituents (namely its roots) to be steeped in wine rather than decocted into a tisane. Regardless of the means of preparation, the Greek and Romans both valued valerian as a very powerful soporific or sedative. It is believed that valerian was invaluable in the battlefields for its ability to soothe pain sedate soldiers who were on the cusp of traumatic injury. Aside from its use as an early type of analgesic (it must be noted that valerian was not employed as an anaesthetic as it did not possess as much potency as other preparations such as poppy seeds or cannabis), it was employed as a remedy for mild to moderate fevers, often in conjunction with other herbs or spices. It's most popular usage is as an aid for sleep, having been long thought as an herb that possesses a soporific and somewhat sedative effect. While in the old days both the leaves and the rhizome of the plant was employed as medicine, it later Western herbal practices, only the roots are favoured as medicine as it is believed to possess more potent and active constituent compounds, typically in the form of an oil that is contained within the roots itself (the leaves however still play a quite integral role in Traditional Chinese Medicine, although, like in the West, the fresh or dried rhizomes are considered far more potent). In the Indian system of medicine called Ayurveda, the plant's leaves and roots were often dried, powdered, and thrown into a cauldron of boiling water and inhaled to provide relief for bronchial complaints and to help produce a feeling of calmness and euphoria. [3]

By the time of the Mughal Rajas, valerian became a highly valued aromatherapeutic herb that was indispensable in bath houses due to its calming and de-stressing qualities. Valerian root, when dried, may have even been infused in carrier oils and employed for massage or otherwise as a perfume by both the middle and aristocratic classes of Mughal India [4] (a practice later perfected by the French in the extraction of the root's essential oil for perfumery sometime in the early 1700s), although it was still a commonplace herb that can be used by peoples of any caste. [5] A whole continent away, the Native North American tribes also employed valerian as an analgesic for various aches and pains. Chewed leaves were often inserted into the ear, into a tooth cavity, or into open wounds to facilitate healing and counteract pain. [6] Strong brews of the leaves (and perhaps even the root of the plant) were combined with herbs such as willow bark and used to treat wounds, while very potent decoctions of the plant were drunk to induce as numb a state of consciousness as possible prior to minor surgeries, childbirth, or ritual ordeals - a practice that would later stand the European settlers in good stead when they learned of the plant's properties and expanded usage. The Native Americans were also not adverse to employing valerian as a sort of spice in their cooking, although for what types of food exactly, very little extant information is left today (it can be surmised that it may have been bison, elk, or any type of large game that needed strong flavours).

Since ancient times, a decoction of the root has been given to remedy various diseases that result in some form of unrest such as tremors, palsy, mania, and the then still untreatable and unidentifiable disease of psychosis which is often characterised by periods of extreme excitability and unrest. [6] Because of its capacity to promote sleep and aid in soothing weary nerves, it was a popular draught for people who regularly underwent the rigors of a stressful lifestyle (for those times, various court intrigues and warfare constituted some of the most stressful forms of 'work'). It was often prescribed for remedying hysteria in women, excitability in children, and even cases of manic periods, or otherwise as a means to general discomfort, all depending on the potency of the brew. [7] Valerian was among the sedative and nervine herbs that were given for individuals who were in the fit of rabies infection (then thought by the latter part of the High Middle Ages until well into the Dark Ages as a result of demonic possession or a case of lycanthropy; that is, becoming or transforming into a werewolf), earning it the name herbe de loup (lit. 'wolf's herb') in France. [8] The most popular medium of partaking of valerian in olden times was in the form of ypocras or hippocras wine - a type of mulled or spiced wine that was sweetened with honey and flavoured with other spices. Generally drunk as a convivial beverage, when laced with valerian, poppy seeds, and angelica root instead of the regular cinnamon, cardamom and cloves, it resulted in a very powerful sedating drink that. Because prolonged heat generally 'cooks off' a significant amount of the alcohol present in wine, valerian leaves and other soporific herbs or spices were more often than not steeped in the wine via cold maceration rather than boiled, although either practice yielded a draught that delivered excellent results. [9]

Prior to the onset of the Dark Ages, valerian was also employed by most wise women and healers as an emmenagogue for painful menstrual periods, and as a mild 'anaesthetic' during childbirth. Poultices of the root, when heated and applied to the extremities (especially if combined with garlic root, chilli pepper flakes or ginger root) helped to relieve the pain brought about by rheumatism, arthritis, and chilblains. [10] As with Ayurvedic practices, the roots and / or leaves of the plant may have also been steeped in oil and applied as an ointment or liniment, although this practice may have at best been rare as oils in the Middle Ages had a tendency to be scarce and / or expensive except in areas where access to oil (i. e. olive or nut oils) were abundant. Valerian was also employed by some cultures as a remedy for chest pains, bronchitis, asthma, boils, and skin lesions - either as a tonifying drink drunk daily, or (in the case of topical diseases) as a rinse or a balm. Because valerian is a potent sedative herb, it was even employed as a key ingredient in the brewing of poisons, not only for its supposed ability to 'strengthen' the property of any herb it is mixed with, but for its capacity to sedate the body to such a point that it can be rendered immobile or disoriented enough that poison can take effect without giving the victim a chance to call for an antidote. This practice, along with the fact that valerian can be deadly if taken in very powerful or highly concentrated doses, was a good way to rid oneself of political rivals, and the herb earned the reputation for being a favourite in court intrigue and assassinations, subsequently giving valerian a bad reputation among amateur herbalists. By itself, valerian is only moderately dangerous, and only if taken if extremely potent or very large doses (oftentimes to the point of its becoming unpalatable), but combined with far more dangerous natural poisons, it makes for an excellent, near-fool-proof way to rid oneself of enemies - a staple that many individuals of ages past have not had scruples in undertaking.

By the time of the American Civil War, some areas of the United State employed valerian alongside other analgesic herbs and spices to alleviate the pain which resulted from battle wounds, or to otherwise act as a dulling agent for crude cases which required crude surgical intervention. The Victorian and Georgian Eras saw valerian as fit for tincturing, and various recipes for anxiety, hysteria, tremors, palsy, convulsions, palpitations, and fainting were developed and was largely in use and stock in various apothecaries throughout the British Empire and subsequently exported beyond its underlying colonies and neighbouring countries. [11] Its use as an analgesic, nervine, and as a soporific persisted until well into the Second World War, although its usage experienced something of a halt sometime after the end of the War. During the height of the Georgian Period, valerian became a commonplace ingredient in a variety of patent medicines, including cough syrups and tinctures. A revival in the interest in alternative medicine has ushered a renewed use for valerian as an all-natural alternative to chemical-based sleeping pills. Aside from its use as natural sleeping pills or as a base ingredient for synthetic ones, valerian has also been suggested by some modern herbalists and naturopaths as a good remedy for depression, anxiety, and some forms of erratic behaviour especially if combined with herbs such as St John's wort, lavender, lobelia, hops, or lemon balm. [12] It is currently being investigated for its propensity to be of use for treating heartburn, angina pectoris, irregular heartbeat, and recurring chest pains caused by arrhythmia, especially if the herb is combined with cayenne pepper. [13] Various extracts of valerian are available both via prescription (when the plant is extracted and integrated into synthetic drugs) and over-the-counter (these are usually in the form of encapsulated powdered roots or root extracts that have not been integrated with other synthetic compounds aside from necessary preservatives, extenders or binders) as natural sleeping pills, anti-anxiety pills, anti-insomnia pills, and natural antidepressants depending on the concoction of other herbs (if any) within the herbal capsule, tea bag, or tablet. Some schools of modern naturopathic medicine even suggest the use of valerian to treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and epilepsy, although there is very little evidence to support its efficiency or safety for long-term use. [14]

An essential oil extracted from the root of the plant is now also available, although the oil of valerian itself is not something new, but came to its height of usage sometime prior to the French Revolution as an integral ingredient to perfumes. Today, the essential root of valerian is employed in aromatherapeutic preparations as a nervine, or otherwise mixed with a base oil and employed as a topical antifungal agent and analgesic. [15] Valerian essential oil is still in use today in some high-end perfumes, although low-grade essentials oils are commonly sold in stores for the purpose of aroma-diffusion. It should be noted that the aroma of valerian is strongly attractive to cats, and, like catmint and catnip, it may cause feelings of elation, aggressiveness or euphoria in felines who are close to bruised live plants, or those that get a whiff of diffused essential oil.

Valerian - Esoteric Uses

As with most herbs that have a long-standing history of usage, valerian has also been known since ancient times as apt ingredient for magickal workings. While the magickal properties of valerian are often inextricable from its medicinal applications (as was the case during the time of the Ancient Greeks and Early Romans), it later came to a sort of 'mythology' all its own sometime during the early Middle Ages, with some 'properties' gleaned from the many traditions that have employed the herb since time immemorial. The majority of the magickal properties associated with valerian stems not from Antiquity, but from properties later grafted onto its own sphere of concordance sometime during the Early Middle Ages. These beliefs purported earlier origins that date back to before the Fall of the Roman Empire, but were really an amalgam of beliefs from various folkloric traditions that have sprung up from the various communities that would later comprise the present day English, Scots, and Irish populations. While valerian during those times was still strongly associated with Rome, and, subsequently, Roman folklore, magick, and traditions, the underlying communities that were formerly Roman colonies that had by then begun to convert to the new religion of Christianity soon found a clash of cultures that stemmed from new herbal lore brought about by an attempted adaptation of old traditions into what would become a central and only very subtly hinted but highly blatant hybridised new one. While valerian was initially just a protective herb said to dispel evil, with the uncanny ability (it is said) of turning anything bad into something good. While in Roman times much of the magick associated with valerian came from its medicinal use, with its introduction to the Europeans, several magickal associations had been developed.

Among the earliest post-Roman magickal uses for the plant was as an herb of confinement, boundaries, and protection - the dried leaves being tied in a bundle and hung atop an entrance, or powdered root and leaves of the plant being otherwise sprinkled outside the threshold of a doorway to prevent the entry of unwanted visitors or thieves. Hung all around the house, or otherwise suspended from the rafters, it was believed that valerian would promote harmony throughout a household and protect whoever was within the confines of the hearth and home from any harm. Later on, hybridised practices that included incantations and spells more that veered outside simple sympathetic magick arose, often employing valerian as a dispelling or protective herb. [16] In the practice of Voodoo, valerian is often employed as a substitute for the dreaded graveyard dirt, and is often employed for hexing spells. While valerian is said to protect an edifice from any evil if sprinkled upon its threshold, when it is sprinkled on the fields or property of an enemy while saying their name causes that person to suffer a spell of bad luck, illness, and troubles. When cast or thrown upon an enemy, sprinkled onto his footsteps, or otherwise dusted upon his steps, a similar result is said to be obtainable. One of the more potent types of hexing involving valerian is to encase the powdered root and / or leaves of the plant in a juju bag or medicine pouch made of red cloth, to be buried anywhere within the range of your enemy's property to bring a blight upon them. [17] When employed positively, a medicine pouch containing valerian and other choice herbs or crystals that are known to protect not only staves off bad dreams when used as a dream pillow or secreted beneath a pillowcase of a chronic insomniac or avid Dreamer, but may even be worn upon one's person as an amulet against accidents, illness, general malaise, and hexing. A juju bag containing a sprig of valerian may be kept near one's person to attract or fix a desired lover, although this practice seems to be more effective for women (as tradition goes) than it is for men.

With the growing rise of Christianity, the resulting hybridised practices that combined paganism with the now current religion resulted in valerian's integration into the general lore of the Christian Church itself, where its aroma was prized as a perfume for altars, and the powdered roots and dried leaves steeped in water were favoured for consecrating thuribles, censers, chalices, monstrances and other items employed for the Sacramental Rites. [18]

In most modern neo-shamanic practices, the original virtues of valerian's capacity to attract small animals such as cats and rodents still persist, and it is believed that, when burnt as incense, it can be used to call on or appease animal spirits or to allow one to communicate easier with totemic sprits. In ancient times, it was believed that valerian allowed one to put into thrall small animals such as cats and rats. One version of the old legend of the Pied Piper even suggested that the wily character used valerian stuffed in his pocket to first lure the rats, and later the children of Hamelin away from their homes. In some schools of Wicca, water steeped in valerian makes for an excellent consecration and cleansing liquid (the same bodes true of its essential oil mixed with virgin olive oil or some other base oil), while incense made from its dried constituent parts or from a diffusion of its essential oil helped to consecrate, ward, or purify a place, object, or a person. Its talismanic usage still persists in various schools of magick, although it is strongest in neo-shamanism, revivalist traditional Paganism, and Wicca. [19]

Valerian - Contraindications And Safety

While valerian is generally considered safe for regular use, excessive intake of valerian may be harmful or detrimental to one's health. Excessive intake of supplements containing valerian may cause lethargy, weakness, dizziness, palpitations, or chest pain - while very large doses of valerian may result in stupor, shallowness of breathing, vomiting, nausea, and in some cases even death (especially if mixed with synthetic drugs). As a general safety rule, valerian must be considered on par with synthetic sleeping pills, and one must not operate heavy machinery, drive, nor attempt to use or operate items which pose a danger to one's person or necessitate the need for manual dexterity while having partaken of the herb. Because it can act as a very potent sedative, individuals must also closely monitor the amount they take, alongside that of other drugs, synthetic or otherwise, which may react to valerian. As a general safety note, pregnant and nursing women, as well individuals below the age of twenty-four must not be given valerian, the former two being advised to discontinue the use of valerian until the interim of pregnancy or the nursing period, and the latter being strongly advised not to partake of the herb without the proper and strict guidance of a medical practitioner or expert herbalist.

Valerian - Other Names, Past and Present

Chinese: xie cao
Japanese: hokkai-kisso (valerian root) / kanokusou
Korean: balleli (possibly an onomatopoeic adaptation of the Anglo-Latin 'valerian')
Hindi: veleriyana (rough adaptation of the English name, not proper translation) / gil-giti / taggar / tagara / tagar-ganthoda
Urdu: mushk bala / risha wala
French: grande valeriane / guerit tout / herbe a la femme meurtrie / herbe aux chats / herbe aux coupures / herbe de Notre Dame / rhizome de valeriane / herbe du loup / valeriane commune / valeriane sauvage
Italian: valeriana / amantilla
Spanish: valeriana / amantilla
Middle English: setwall / setwalle / setwale
English: all-heal (not to be confused with plants from the genus Stachys) / valerian / common valerian / garden valerian / fragrant valerian / garden heliotrope (referred occasionally as such, but is not truly related to the family Heliotropium) / capon's tail / cat's valerian / vandal root
German: baldrian / baldrianwurzel / wenderot
Ancient Greek: phu / fu
Latin (esoteric): theriacaria / marinella / genicularis / terdina
Latin (scientific nomenclature): Valeriana officinalis / Valeriana wallichii / Valeriana jatamansii (other nomenclatures exist, depending on the varietal)


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Main article researched and created by Alexander Leonhardt.

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