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Valerian

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AUGUST 2012: VALERIAN (Valeriana Officinalis)

Valerian Description and Habitat:: Two species of Valerian, 'Valeriana officinalis' and 'V. dioica', are indigenous in Britain, while a third, 'V. pyrenaica', is naturalized in some parts. The genus comprises about 150 species. In medicine, 'V. officinalis' is intended when Valerian is mentioned.

A common perennial plant, Valerian is found throughout Europe and Northern Asia and is common in England in marshy thickets and on the borders of ditches and rivers, where its tall stems may be seen in the summer towering above the other plants. In bloom from June to September, the plant is up to 4 feet tall with round, grooved and hollow stems which are slightly hairy towards the base. The leaves are pinnate with 9 to 21 lance-shaped segments up to 3 inches long, with a few coarse teeth and some hairs underneath. The leaves are more infrequent and opposite higher up the stem. The stems terminate in broad and flattened clusters of numerous small flowers which are white tinged with pink and funnel-shaped with five unequal lobes which have a peculiar but not unpleasant scent. The rootstock is short, giving off a tuft of long creeping runners. This root often develops for several years before a single flowering stem is sent up.

Although more often growing in damp situations, Valerian is also met with on dry, elevated ground. It is found throughout Britain, but in the northern counties is more often found on higher and dryer ground - dry heaths and hilly pastures - than in the south, and then is usually smaller, not more than 2 feet high, with narrow leaves and hairy, and is often named 'sylvestris'. The medicinal qualities of this form are considered to be especially strong.

Common Names: Valerian, All-Heal, Set-Well, Setwall, Setewale, Great Wild Valerian, Amantilla, Capon's Tail, Fragrant Valerian, Heliotrope, Vandal Root, Blessed Herb, Tagara, Phu (Galen).

French = Herbe aux chats

The Valerian drug has a slightly bitter taste and a characteristic, powerful and very disagreeable smell. This is the origin of its common name 'Phu' given to it by Dioscorides and Galen, by whom it is extolled as an aromatic and diuretic. The plant was in such esteem in mediaeval times as a remedy that it received the name of All Heal, which is still given it in some parts of the country today.

The derivation of the name of this genus of plants is uncertain. Some authors consider that it was named after Valerius, who first used it in medicine; while others derive the name from the Latin word ‘valere’ (to be in health), due to its medicinal qualities. The word ‘Valeriana’ is not found in the classical authors; it is first found in the ninth or tenth century, at which period and for long afterwards it was used as synonymous with ‘Phu’ or ‘Fu’ in medical works. The word ‘Valerian’ occurs in the recipes of the Anglo Saxon leeches of the eleventh century. Valeriana, Amantilla and Fu are used as synonymous in the ‘Alphita’, a mediaeval vocabulary of the important medical school of Salernum. Saladinus of Ascoli (about 1450) directs the collection in the month of August of ‘radices fu, id est Valerianae’. Referring to the name ‘Amantilla’, by which it was known in the fourteenth century, Professor Henslow quotes a curious recipe of that period, a translation of which runs as follows: 'Men who begin to fight and when you wish to stop them, give to them the juice of ‘Amantilla id est Valeriana’ and peace will be made immediately.'

‘Theriacaria’, ‘Marinella’, ‘Genicularis’ and ‘Terdina’ are other old names by which Valerian has been known in former days. Another old name met with in Chaucer and other old writers is 'Setwall' or 'Setewale,' the derivation of which is uncertain. Mediaeval herbalists also called the plant 'Capon's Tail,' which has been explained as a reference to its spreading head of whitish-pink flowers.

Valerian is cultivated for the drug in Derbyshire in villages near Chesterfield. It is also cultivated in Prussia, Saxony (in the neighbourhood of Colleda, north of Weimar), in Holland and in the United States (Vermont, New Hampshire and New York). English roots have always commanded around four times the price of the imported.

Part Used: Root.

Medicinal Uses: Culpepper (1649) joins with many old writers to recommend the use both of herb and root, and praises the herb for its longevity and many comforting virtues, reminding us that it is 'under the influence of Mercury, and therefore hath a warming faculty.' Among other uses, he adds '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.'.

Gerard tells us that herbalists of his time thought it '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 relates that the dried root was held in such esteem as a medicine among the poorer classes in the northern counties and the south of Scotland, that 'no broth or pottage or physicall meats be worth anything if Setewale (the old name for Valerian) be not there.'

Valerian is used for hypochondria, nervous headaches, irritability, mild spasmodic affections, diarrhoea, epilepsy, migraine headaches, croup, hysteria, convulsions, vertigo, nervous cough, delirium, neuralgia, muscle cramps, rheumatic pains, gas pains, stomach cramps, spasms, palpitations, colic, depression, panic attacks, emotional stress, PMS, menstrual cramps, despondency and insomnia.

Valerian will help the stress sufferer as it actually strengthening the nervous system and nullifies the effect stress has on the body. It is particularly used to reduce tension and anxiety, over-excitability and hysterical states as well as to allay pain and promote sleep. It is calming without exerting too sedative an effect and is practically non-addictive. It is a valuable treatment for insomnia and documented research has noted a mild hypnotic action in both normal sleepers and insomniacs, indicated by the good quality of sleep. Valerian may also be used as an expectorant to help relieve tickling, nervous coughs. It has a strengthening action on the heart and experiments indicate that it can lower blood pressure.

Research has confirmed that teas, tinctures, and extracts of this plant depress the central nervous system, are antispasmodic and a sedative when agitation is present, but also a stimulant in fatigue. It is also antibacterial, anti-diuretic and liver-protective. Valerian is a leading over-the-counter tranquilizer in Europe.

Valerian is a marvellous remedy for fevers and will often clear a cold overnight. Good for expelling phlegm from throat and chest it is also excellent for shortness of breath and wheezing. A tea of Valerian can be used as an enema for pinworms and tape worms and externally as a wash for sores, wounds, chronic skin diseases, and pimples. However, if taken too often or in excessive doses, it can cause headaches, spasmodic movements, or hallucinations.

During the Second World War, shell-shock and 'bombing neurosis' were treated with Valerian. In China it is prescribed for influenza, rheumatism, insomnia, apprehension and traumatic injuries. Oil of Valerian is employed to a considerable extent on the Continent as a popular remedy for cholera in the form of cholera drops, It is also in soap perfumery and is considered to be a good treatment for dandruff.

It was well known to the Anglo-Saxons, who used it as a salad. Valerian has an effect on the nervous system of many animals, especially cats, which are thrown into a frenzy by its scent. It is equally attractive to rats and is often used by rat-catchers to bait their traps. It has been suggested that the famous Pied Piper of Hamelin owed his irresistible power over rats to the fact that he secreted Valerian roots about his person.

Last Updated on Saturday, 08 September 2012 13:55  

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