How to Grow and Care for Valerian

Pale pink trumpet shaped flowers in clusters on green stems
Valerian flowers are white and pale pink and sweetly scented

Kevin / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) is a flowering perennial that is native to much of Europe and Asia. The word's origins come from the Latin verb valere which means "to be strong and healthy", and one of its common names is "all-heal."

The valerian root is used in many medicinal applications and it is known to be an effective sleep aid. It can grow up to five feet tall, and when in bloom, the top of the plant is covered with small pale pink or white flowers. There is a plant known as red valerian (Centranthus ruber) that resembles it but is not related. Red valerian flowers are a much deeper pink color.

These flowers have a sweet scent that is reminiscent of vanilla and cloves and they're attractive to pollinators due to their abundant nectar. Valerian attracts many species of flies (including hoverflies) and are a major food source for many species of butterfly. Cats also appreciate the smell of the plant, almost more than they do with catnip.

Valerian's healing properties have been recorded since the days of Galen and Hippocrates. Herbalist Nicolas Culpeper recommended it as a preventive for the plague in the 17th century. The root has been used for curing insomnia, coughs, menstrual cramps, and muscular pain, and the leaves are used for making a poultice for bruises.

Today most people use it to help promote sleep or relaxation. It can be made into a tea or infusion or taken in capsule form. Some prefer capsules because the tea has a pungent odor and astringent taste that can be unpleasant. Though clinical studies have not proven its effectiveness, many people swear by valerian as a sleep and relaxation aid.

Valerian makes a good companion plant alongside echinacea, hummingbird mint, catnip, and dill. You can also cut the flower stalks for vases as they're very decorative and fragrant and make a nice addition to bouquets.

Scientific Name  Valeriana officinalis
Common Name  Valerian, all-heal, garden heliotrope
Plant Type  Perennial 
Mature Size  3 to 5 feet tall 
Sun Exposure  Full sun to partial shade 
Soil Type  Average, well-drained, loam
Soil pH  Tolerant of most soils 
Bloom Time  Early summer 
Flower Color  White, pale pink 
Hardiness Zones  USDA 3 to 9
Native Areas  Europe, Asia
Toxicity Care should be taken when using internally
Plant with oval lancet shaped leaves alternating on stems
The leaves of valerian, which appear in spring, can be used to make poultices for bruises. Desiree Winans / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Valerian Care

Providing your valerian plant gets sufficient moisture, they are a fairly hardy species that can survive in a variety of temperatures.

Light

Valerian is not super-sensitive to bright sunlight and can cope in a full sun position. Selecting somewhere where it has access to afternoon sun in a partial sun situation, however, will help it thrive.

Soil

Valerian will grow in most soil types and textures as long as there is good drainage, but it prefers a sandy loam. It tends to grow wild in grasslands and meadows. Clay soils may not have the drainage necessary to keep the plants consistently moist, so adding compost will help.

Water

Valerian needs a consistent amount of light moisture to thrive.

Temperature and Humidity

Valerian is very cold hardy and will survive harsh winter conditions. The plants die back in winter and emerge again in spring.

Fertilizer

To prevent the roots of your valerian plants from becoming excessively large it is best to avoid a standard NPK fertilizer and opt for one that is rich in nitrogen.

Harvesting

The best times to harvest the roots of your valerian plant is either in spring or fall as that's when the beneficial compounds are at their peak. After harvesting the roots, wash them well and then spread or hang them to dry in a warm place. A low oven (100 degrees) works fine, as does a sunny window ledge in warm weather.

Be warned that the roots do have a strong smell while drying, so you may want to open some windows. Once dried, store the roots in an airtight container out of direct sunlight.

You'll want to wait to start harvesting the roots until autumn of the second year.

Pruning

This plant has a tendency to reseed itself and spread, so trimming the spent flowers before they go to seed will help prevent it from becoming invasive.

Propagating Valerian

Healthy established plants can be divided at the roots to produce new specimens in your garden. Any division should be done earlier rather than later to ensure the new roots of the dividing plants have time to embed before the winter arrives.

Growing Valerian From Seed

Valerian is easily grown from seed by direct sowing in the garden after all danger of frost has passed. Plant between 3/8 and 1/2 inch deep. The clumps will eventually increase to about 18 inches wide. It takes two to three weeks to germinate.