Family: Valerianaceae, Valeriana officinalis L.

Source: Simon, J.E., A.F. Chadwick and L.E. Craker. 1984. Herbs: An Indexed Bibliography. 1971-1980. The Scientific Literature on Selected Herbs, and Aromatic and Medicinal Plants of the Temperate Zone. Archon Books, 770 pp., Hamden, CT.

Valerian, Valeriana officinalis L., is a hardy perennial, native to Europe and western Asia. Also known as common valerian and garden heliotrope, the plant has become naturalized in Canada and the southern United States. The valerian of commerce consists of both rhizomes and roots, collectively called roots. The plant is cultivated in Belgium, the Federal Republic of Germany, France, the Netherlands, and several eastern European countries (11.1-74). Reaching a height of 1 to 1.5 meters, the large herb has an externally yellow-brown rhizome and root, an erect, hollow stem, and fragrant, small, white to rose flowers that bloom in the spring.

Valerian will grow in many soil types but thrives in rich, heavy loam well supplied with moisture (14.1-29). The shade-tolerant plant is found wild in both damp woods and dry mountainous areas.

Plants are easily cultivated. They are started from seeds or by dividing roots that are often obtained in the wild. Usually planted in the autumn, the herb is harvested in fall or winter after two growing seasons (2.3-12). Tops are often cut to encourage continued rhizome growth. Roots are dug, washed, and dried with artificial heat.

The essential oil from valerian root contains the alkaloids valerine, valerianine, and chatinine, as well as tannins and resins (4.9-158, 7.1-91, 7.6-161, 14.1-35). Oil content is 0.5 to 1% of fresh weight. The quality and quantity of volatile oil obtained by steam distillation depends upon the age of the root and the environment. Constituents of the volatile oil include valeric acid, isovaleric acid, l-pinene, l-camphene, l-borneol, terpineol, and several other acids (14.1-11).

Valerian has several different applications. The root oil is used to flavor tobacco and beverages. The plant is also an ingredient of herbal teas and sometimes used as an ornamental, since several cultivars differing in flower color are available (11.1-96). Primary applications however, are in the pharmaceutical industry where the herb is used in the preparation of mild sedatives, carminatives, and medicinal teas.

Traditional medical usage classifies valerian as an antispasmodic, calmative, carminative, nervine, stomachic, vermifuge, and tonic. The herb has been used against fever, fatigue, headaches, insomnia, hysteria, epileptic seizures, and stress. Chinese herbal medicine employs valerian for treatment of influenza, rheumatism, neurasthenia, insomnia, and traumatic injuries (11.1-10). The roots or the oil of valerian roots depresses the central nervous system (14.1-11). The many iridoids called valepotriates of valerian are reported to have a high degree of biological activity with central depressive action resembling tranquilizers (7.6-161). Competition from other products has led to a decline in the use of valerian-based sedatives.

Valeriana wallichii, cultivated in India and other Asian countries, and Valeriana officinalis L. var. latifolia Miquel, Japanese valerian, known as kesso, are also marketed as valerian root. American valerian or ladyslipper is actually Cypripedium calceolus L. of the Orchidaceae family. The heliotrope of the Boraginaceae family is Heliotropium arborescens L., a hairy, tender perennial with fragrant violet to white flowers, cultivated as an ornamental, perfume, and medicinal plant.

Valerian rhizomes and roots are generally recognized as safe for human consumption (21 CFR section 172.515 [1982]).

[Note: References listed above in parentheses can be found in full in the original reference].

Aromatic and Medicinal Plants Index

Last modified 6-Dec-1997