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Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) is one of about 200 members of the Valerianaceae family. This plant is native to Europe and west Asia; it is naturalized throughout North America. A common name for this hardy perennial is garden heliotrope. Valerian has been valued for its soothing qualities for at least a millennium. The name valerian may have come from the Latin valere meaning "to be strong" or "to be in good health." Chaucer called the herb setewale. Other common names include all-heal, vandal root, and Capon's tail. The Greek doctor Galen called a particularly odorous species of valerian "phu," referring to the distinctively unpleasant smell of the dried root. The strong odor appeals to earthworms, intoxicates cats, and attracts rats. According to legend, the Pied Piper of Hamlin, with the assistance of the odorous valerian root, lured the town's rats to the river to drown. Some Asian species of valerian have a more pleasant aroma and may have included spikenard (the biblical name for valerian), which was known as a perfume from the East.
In ancient times, valerian was believed to be under the influence of the god Mercury. The herb grows in lime-rich soil near streams, or in damp, low meadows where it may reach a height of 5 ft (1.5 m). It is also found in drier environments at higher elevations, where it grows to just 2 ft (0.6 m). Roots harvested from the drier environment may be more medicinally potent. This variety is sometimes known as sylvestus.
Valerian's short vertical rhizome is dark yellow-brown in color and has round rootlets. These rootlets produce hollow, fluted stems with opposite leaves and a single leaflet at the tip, and as many as eight to 10 pairs of toothed leaflets. The upper leaves are attached at their base and emerge from a white sheath along the stem. The stems remain erect and unbranched until the very top, were the small, white flowers, tinged with pink, bloom in clusters in the middle of summer. Seeds are winged with tufts of white hair, and they scatter on the wind.
Author Info: Clare Hanrahan, Rebecca J. Frey PhD, The Gale Group Inc., Gale, Detroit, Gale Encyclopedia of Alternative Medicine, 2005
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