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How to grow valerian, a plant whose roots are a gentle and effective sleep aid. Its scented flowers are also loved by bees, and the roots are irresistible to cats.
It’s easy to grow valerian and even though it can grow tall and be knocked down by the wind, it’s pretty tolerant of both heavy and light soils. Being so hardy, it happily grows wild and in cultivated plantings but why add it to the garden at all? There are several reasons that I grow it. The white flowers smell gorgeous in summer and attract bees and butterflies. Cats love it too since the roots have the same effect on them as catnip. Lastly, in autumn you can dig the roots to use for herbal skincare or as a natural sleep aid.
The way that valerian officinalis works as a sleep aid is by gradually making you drowsy and helping you fall into a natural sleep. Best of all, there’s no hangover in the morning like you can have with conventional sleeping pills.
Valerian Root for better sleep
Valerian is non-habit-forming which is a good thing if you have irregular sleep patterns and there are a few ways to take it. You use fresh or dried second-year roots to make a type of simmered tea, called a decoction, and for that, you mix 3 g dried valerian (or 6 g fresh) with one cup of water. Simmer, but don’t boil, for fifteen minutes, then cool to a drinking temperature. Strain and drink before you want to go to sleep. A word of caution though: taking valerian as a supplement is generally safe, but if you are on any other medication or have health issues, speak to your doctor.
For tea, you can blend valerian with better tasting calming herbs such as chamomile, passionflower, and lemon balm. For those, it’s best to make a separate infusion (a herbal tea) then mix it with the decoction before drinking. Valerian isn’t a terrible taste, in my opinion, but it’s not great either. The taste is why some people prefer to take valerian in capsules. You can fill empty capsules with your own dried herbs and keep them stored for up to a year.
The last main way to take valerian is as a tincture or glycerite. Grain alcohol and glycerine are much better at capturing plant essence than most solvents. That can make it stronger than tea, and more concentrated than valerian-filled capsules.
Cats go crazy for Valerian
Valerian has a second use that might surprise you. Its pungent scent is irresistible to many cats and they’ll go absolutely mad for it! It causes cats to start drooling and rolling around until they’re properly silly. If you have a cat that isn’t keen on catnip (it does happen) it’s good to know that valerian can sometimes have the same effect on them. Giving your kitty a little valerian before taking them into stressful situations can calm them down, and it’s often an ingredient in commercial pet calming medication.
Valerian Growing Tips
If you have space at the back of a border, that’s where you should grow valerian. It’s tall and lanky and appreciates the support of other plants or structures. I originally started mine off as seeds sowed in spring. I let them grow in the seed tray until they had true leaves before planting them into large modules. They were about three inches tall when I planted them outside.
That first year the Valerian plants grew about 2.5 feet in height and then died down for the winter. They regrew this year sending up new leaves and tall flower spikes with beautifully scented flowers. It’s said that you can increase the medicinal strength of the valerian root by removing the flower stalks but I left them on for the bees.
I’ve been growing Valerian for six years now and can add that it does well in both clay soil and lighter soil. I’ve given it the occasional mulch of composted manure but have left it to do its own thing most of the time. What you should be aware of is that in a good situation it can grow to five feet in height and needs staking. Otherwise, you’ll find your plants knocked over by the wind and their own weight.
Once you get started, you won’t need additional seeds to grow valerian. They’re a perennial and easily grow from crown and runner division, and they also self-seed. In spring or autumn dig up the plant and chop it into a few pieces with leaf, crown, and roots attached. Replant and you’ll have more plants. Valerian also self-seeds so you can transplant the volunteers if you wish.
Harvesting & Cleaning Valerian
Last week, and after nearly eighteen months of growth, I harvested two of my plants. Valerian has long spindly roots that dig up easily but take a lot of cleaning. I can recommend soaking them in water and spraying them with the hose to loosen any hard clumps of soil.
Scissors are a great way of cutting the roots off the plant and then give them another wash afterward. Next, cut them to about 1/4″ in length for drying. You can compost the rest of the plant or if there are enough roots attached, you can replant it for next year. I’ve tried it and it works, especially if you remove most of the leaves and cut the plant down to about 6-8″ in height.
Drying Valerian Root
There are at least two ways to dry Valerian. The first is to spread the pieces out on drying racks and to let them dry naturally in a dim and airy place in the home. A drying cupboard would be ideal but I’ve dried valerian in my garage and it works fine too. It can take up to several weeks for them to dry this way — you know they’re dry when the pieces are dark and brittle.
The other way is to use a food dehydrator. Each model is different so follow the instructions that yours comes with as far as temperature and time. It’s likely that your Valerian roots will be fully dried within a few hours using this method.
Once dried, store the roots in a dry, clean, and closed container out of direct sunlight. They can last two to three years before their quality starts degrading.