Botanical name: Valerianella locusta
The common valerian is the best known plant of the Valerianaceae family, which includes over 150 species. Its scientific name indicates its relevance as a medicinal plant.
Origins and history
Native to Europe, it is also found in some regions of tropical South America and North America. Valerian, which can reach180 centimeters in height, is covered with numerous white or pink flowers, gathered in corymbs. It grows a little everywhere up to 1400 meters high in the humid places of the woods and in the meadows exposed to the shade; it blooms between April and June and is also called catnip: in fact, its scent attracts cats. This is why it is rarely used as a decorative plant in gardens.
It is perennial and is characterized by having an erect stem with grooves, compound intense green leaves (formed by a number of leaves varying between 11 and 19) and roots with a particular odor. Once the pollination has been completed by the insects, the fruits of the valerian appear in July: it is an achene with a striated surface and which has strange feathery bristles: the latter are a residue of the small teeth of the calyx flower.
Nutritional and beneficial properties of Valerian
With its leaves, an herbal tea with sedative effects is prepared, particularly suitable if you are nervous, irritated or tense. In fact, all the varieties of valerian have medicinal properties as they contain flavonoids and alkaloids: among the former are important 6-methylapigenin, linarin, and hesperidin, while between the latter cannot forget valerine (a substance present only in this family), cathinine, actinidine and alpha-pyrrylketone.
Furthermore, the plant has a high content of essential oils, linked to valerenic acid, valerianic acid, valerenol and iridoids, ie diterpene compounds.
The roots also have calming and sedative properties, which promote a peaceful sleep. In practice, essential oils inhibit the animal enzyme for the metabolic degradation of GABA: in this way they induce sleep in humans. Some alkaloids also have this function, in addition to reducing blood pressure and intestinal spasms. However, it is recommended not to administer valerian to nursing, pregnant women and children under 6 years of age.
Uses of Valerian in the kitchen
There are many different ways to use valerian: the most common one involves the making of an infusion.To prepare it, you need to dilute a teaspoon of valerian root in a cup of boiling water (about 2-3 grams per 150-200 ml) and should be taken about half an hour before going to bed. Since valerian root has a particular flavor, the taste of the brew can be improved by using a mix of plants. In case you use the mother tincture of valerian, it is advisable to dilute half a teaspoon or a whole teaspoon of extract in a cup of water depending on your level of insomnia: in practice, the dosage varies from 15 to 30 drops. Also in this case the preparation is taken 30 minutes before going to bed.
Valerian can also have an external use, that is as an essential oil for the bath, but it can be used in the form of fresh juice or salad.
For example it can be served with oranges cut into small pieces, lightly toasted pine nuts and fresh goat cheese: it is a recipe that can be eaten either as an appetizer or a light main course or as a single dish for a summer lunch. Alternatively, it can be served with red beets or with walnuts and sultanas or in the form of a soup.
The name valerian comes from the Latin "valere", a word that means "luxuriant, strong", but also "feel good", in reference to its relaxing abilities. Already in ancient times many doctors and scholars recommended it as a medicinal plant: for Dioscorides it was an antidote against poisons and a diuretic, while according to Galen it was an excellent decongestant.
Finally, in his treatise Pliny indicated valerian as an analgesic. Because of its calming effects and because it is readily available, valerian was used extremely widely during the First World War to combat the effects of nervous breakdown that soldiers suffered as a result of long stays in the trenches and bombing.