Under Valerian’s wing

In my last blog post I mentioned that plants make the best teachers.  And you find that they’ll deliver lessons in a variety of ways, as I was reminded recently when spending time with Valeriana officinalis.  Lessons about them, about your patients and about you too.


Have you ever been helped along your path by Valerian?  Those who have felt it’s effect develop a deep respect for this special plant. They’ll talk to you about it years later.  The changes it allowed them to make.  The healing and the growth.  And during these conversations you become “Team Valerian”, full of admiration and camaraderie.

There is no mistaking the smell of a Valerian product and the pungent, enigmatically dark tincture certainly makes it’s presence known in a blend.  Those who have bought Valerian capsules from a shop find that their store cupboard will forever more smell of Valerian and so meeting the plant “in the flesh” can be quite a surprise for those struck by the aromatic onslaught of Valerian.  In the Summer, out on walks I see it out of the corner of my eye.  A gentle pastel flash of pale pink.  This demure, tall, slender plant has an appearance that belies it’s titan healing strength.  It’s the roots of Valerian that we use medicinally, and there is no other smell quite like it.  The roots do indeed yield an essential oil, a warm, musky, balsamic woody, dark oil, rich in bornyl acetate and isovalerate.  The essential oil, like the herb is used to calm and restore the nervous system, but when we use the whole root in herbal medicine, the essential oils is believed to work synergystically with other constituents (such as the valepotriates) to product the sedative and nervine actions.  As the root ages, valeric acid heightens the aroma.


I needed to harvest some Valerian roots recently for teaching.  I knew from my Summer herbal forays down by the loch that there were several plants there growing in among the beauty that is Meadowsweet.  The moist soil on the banks of the loch make a lovely habitat for these two plants, who both like to dip their roots into damp soils.   As I made my way along the banks of the loch I smelt her… That feeling of walking into a room and realising someone you know has been there because their perfume still lingers on the air…I knew that Valerian was somewhere close by, but I just couldn’t spot any of the foliage.  I sat for a while down by , and gradually the breeze picked up a little, again carrying that scent.  Realising the direction it had blown in from I followed my nose and presently came across a patch of Meadowsweet, right down by the water.  The smell was so strong and I knew it was rising up from the moist, Autumn leaf strewn soil.  Searching about I eventually saw those familiar leaves and was able to start my harvest.

The tenacious root ball had grown down in the soil between two large rocks,  forging on regardless of it’s surroundings. I had to loosen the rocks by gently digging down and around them,  feeling my away around their cold form, finally creating enough space to release the fragrant knot of roots.  I sat down again by the water to wash away some of the dark earth from the roots, enjoying the plant’s potent perfume and reflecting upon these roots and their journey into the soil between the rocks.  When I work long term with Valerian I see it as the hands that loosen the rocks. That create the space that facilitates a release, and allows the individual to step out and walk an easier path.  A path that isn’t potholed with intrusive anxiety or fear.  A path that is well lit as the fog of insomnia lifts, and the dark clouds of low mood clear.  A path that is easier to walk because the body has released tension and pain,  And there is always a path that has to be walked on the way to recovery.  Not always an easy one, but, Valerian accompanies you.  Some research suggests that Valerian promotes GABA release whilst also inhibiting it’s uptake back into nerve cells, thereby increasing and prolonging it’s presence in the synaptic cleft.  GABA (a neurotransmitter) is involved in the regulation of anxiety.


I took the roots home and as I scrubbed and prepared them she sang her soporific song and I found myself acknowledging the tiredness I’d been ignoring.  In a way I had my own rocks on that day.  I’d bricked myself in with too much work, too many commitments, too many ideas and plans whirring around my head at bedtime, and whilst I loved each and every one of those bricks, my time with Valerian had reminded me that sometimes you need to loosen the soil and make some space.  It reminded me to listen to my body.  Always.  Not doing so had, in the past, left me needing the company of Valerian for many months, to nourish an exhausted nervous system.  And so I did as Valerian asked and rested a little more.  Spent a little more time by the loch listening to nature and took down those bricks one by one without replacing too many with new ones.

A fine trophorestorative, an anxiolytic, a hypnotic and a gentle sedative, Valerian is a herb that directs all it’s attention to your nervous system.  Under it’s wing you feel like this herb is utterly dedicated to your well being.  Like a loving, gentle grandmother it wants you to sleep well, eat well and it helps you deal with your worries by bolstering your inner strength.  At times of emotional shock and upset you can run into those open, safe arms and be held until your racing heart slows.  It is a tower of strength and one that helps you find your own.

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