Originally published in Castine Patriot, July 24, 2014
Outside Insights: Valerian
by Peter Cooperdock
“What’s that white flower? It looks kinda like Queen Anne’s Lace, but I know it’s not.” My passenger gazes out the window at the fields as we drive by.
“Is it wild parsley or poison hemlock?” I ask without taking my eyes off the road.
“Poison hemlock? Like what Socrates drank? I hope not!”
“Let’s pull over and see if we can find out. I have some plant books in the back.”
The field before us is filled with tall thick green spikes with white fan-shaped flower clusters on top. An abandoned field, there are a multitude of species, but it is currently dominated by these four- to five feet high flowers. Wading into the field, it’s noticed that the plants have large basal leaves which are deeply cut into many leaflets. This leaf form continues up the stem with decreasing size at widely spaced intervals of leaf pairs on opposite sides of the stem.
Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide is the best choice for the amateur naturalist due to its easy to use key system. My copy is battered and bruised from decades of use, but it remains a favorite and available. Looking closely at the flowers, it’s determined that the individual flowers have five petals and there is a pinkish cast to them. Opposite leaves on the stems which are deeply divided lead the search to a choice between the ginsengs and the valerian. The only choice which is this tall is garden valerian or garden heliotrope, common names for the same plant.
Garden valerian is an escapee from cultivation that is another transplant from Europe. This plant has a long history as a medicinal plant, with known benefits for sleep challenges and anxiety, since at least the Greeks and Romans. Valerian root can be purchased as a capsule or as a tea for these purposes. It’s also been used as a perfume although some find the dried odor offensive.
Gazing upon the gently swaying stems of this prolific plant, one wonders how it came to be so plentiful. It stands so tall within these fields, somewhat out of place among the other wildflowers enjoying this short interlude of warm and prime growing weather. But here it is, unconcerned about these questions as it takes in the sunlight to make the food to nourish its roots for another season beyond.