Common Valerian – Valeriana Officinalis: Edible & Medicinal Uses of the Valium of the 19th Century

Table of Contents

Common valerian (Valeriana officinalis) is a rare garden escape around Haliburton, Ontario. The pictures here are of plants I grew and harvested for medicinal root tea.

Valerian is one of my primary go-to herbal medicines. If I am having an anxious time, especially acutely, this is the medicinal tea I brew. Doctors used to recommend this medicinal herb a lot, before we had Valium et al. In Europe during wartime, many folks used valerian for their nerves. (Btw, the next plant we’re covering is known as American Valerian. Hint: the flowers look like slippers!)

Common valerian - Valeriana officinalis
Common valerian – Valeriana officinalis

A few native varieties exist in Ontario, Canada, detailed below in “Growing”.

Edible Uses of Edible Valerian (Valeriana edulis)

Valerian roots have a unique scent and taste, that may not grow on you. One of valerians other names is “phu” referring to this odor. The postwoman had a lot to say when I picked up a package of these roots – the smell filled the post office. Our title common valerian is more of a medicinal root.

The variety v. edulis is called “edible valerian” and is more likely to be used for its edible roots when prepared properly. And Valeriana edulis is native to Ontario, Canada! Steaming edible valerian for 24 hours reduces the odor that I’ve always described as “wet dog”. The steamed roots can be eaten as is, dried and ground into flour, or used for their umm, unique flavouring.

Medicinal Uses of Common Valerian

Valerian is primarily said to support these body systems:

  • Cardiovascular
  • Digestive
  • Nervous
  • Respiratory

Medicinal tags include Antispasmodic, Carminative, Nervine, Sedative, and Stimulant. See Medicinal tag key for more information.

Common usage includes the oily root as a sedative in times of extreme stress. It may help pain and headaches, especially related to stress, digestive issues related to stress, and insomnia too. If the flavor of the tea is a bit much, you can find the ground root available in capsule form.

There is argument over whether or not this herb is “addictive”, however, it shouldn’t be taken constantly or for an extended time in the first place.

The constituents of this plant have been studied quite extensively by scientists. Valerenic acid, valeranone and valerenal induce sleep and raise GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid). For some people, GABA decreases nervous system activity. GABA is now a popular supplement for anxiety. Also, a widely prescribed anticonvulsant is valproic acid (VPA), derived from valeric acid.

Common valerian - Valeriana officinalis
Common valerian – Valeriana officinalis

The root can be combined with skullcap for tension, with passion flower or hop for insomnia, or with cramp bark for cramps. It may also be combined with blue vervain, lemon balm, gentian, mistletoe, peppermint, etc.

An herbalist may also use valerian for certain heart tonics, migraines and rheumatic pain, or even spastic coughs.

Alternative Uses of Garden Heliotrope

Valerian has been used in rat traps. Be careful as it attracts cats too. I’ve caught my kitty with his nose in my tea, intoxicated by the scent. It’s gotten the folk name “cat’s love” for this. They can overdose on it, so beware leaving a strong tea unattended! You may find some flying insects floating in it too, if you’re not careful.

Small amounts can be used like catnip for your kitties.

Growing Valeriana SPP.

Ontario has three native valerian including the edible Valeriana edulis, as well as the marsh valerians V. uliginosa and V. dioica.

Because the more medicinal common valerian can escape into the wild and generally isn’t grown for its parsley-like looks, its pretty safe to assume mainly herbalists will be reading the rest of this feature. In some areas where this common medicinal has been more invasive, note this plant may be outright banned.

It’s smart to grow your own valerian root if you can, as store bought batches can be adulterated with other roots.

Valerian can be grown from seed or plugs and in containers or a maintained patch. A drier, stony soil yields a root richer in oil. In areas where it can become invasive it’s easy enough to collect the seeds before they get a chance to escape. The medicinal roots will be ready to dig up in two years, gathered after the leaves fall in autumn. Dig carefully – they may have lots of skinny roots and rhizomes, also useful. What you can’t use fresh can be dried in the shade. I used my dehydrator on the lowest setting.


Don’t take with depressants including alcohol or antihistamines.

Do not take in strong doses for an extended period. Overdoses are possible.

And the Usual Cautions:

1) Most medicinal herbs, if edible, are meant to be eaten in moderation, even sparingly. Some require extra preparation. Tannins are toxic if consumed in excess.

2) People can be allergic or sensitive to nearly any plant; try new herbs one at a time at your own risk. For instance, saponins commonly cause stomach upset.

3) For medicinal use, I must recommend receiving a diagnosis and working with a reputed health care provider. I generally do not post specific treatments and dosages because I think that is best between you and your health care provider, and ideally monitored.

4) Anyone pregnant, nursing, or taking prescription drugs should talk to a health care professional before adding new food items to their diet.

5) Many plants have look-a-likes, and sometimes they are poisonous.

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Field Guide to North American Edible Wild Plants (Out of Print)

Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs

Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine: 550 Herbs and Remedies for Common Ailments

Reader’s Digest Magic and Medicine of Plants

The Complete Illustrated Holistic Herbal: A Safe and Practical Guide to Making and Using Herbal Remedies

A Harvest of Herbs

The Herbal Medicine-Maker’s Handbook: A Home Manual

The Green Pharmacy: The Ultimate Compendium Of Natural Remedies From The World’s Foremost Authority On Healing Herbs

Herbal Therapeutics: Specific Indications for Herbs & Herbal Formulas (8th Edition)

The Herb Book: The Most Complete Catalog of Herbs Ever Published (Dover Cookbooks)

The Herb Bible

The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism: Basic Doctrine, Energetics, and Classification

Indian Herbalogy of North America: The Definitive Guide to Native Medicinal Plants and Their Uses

The Yoga of Herbs: An Ayurvedic Guide to Herbal Medicine

Rosemary Gladstar’s Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner’s Guide: 33 Healing Herbs to Know, Grow, and Use

A Modern Herbal (Volume 2, I-Z and Indexes)

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