Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) is an attractive flowering perennial herb. Valued for its many culinary and medicinal uses the valerian plant is native to Asia and Europe. Its name derives from the latin verb valere meaning “to be strong and healthy”. Sometimes called all-heal, Pliny recommended the valerian plant as an analgesic over 2000 years ago. Today, valerian plant is still used to treat cramp and muscle pain. An effective way to relieve stress and cure insomnia, the roots can also be used to soothe the digestive and nervous system.
An attractive, ornamental specimen, all-heal’s vanilla and clove scented flowers, emerging in shades of pale pink or white, are rich in nectar. This means that they attract scores of pollinators to the garden. Cats also love the flowers’ sweet aroma. Reaching a mature height of about 5 ft, all-heal is ideally suited to a sunny position at the back of a herb garden or flower bed. You can also grow in containers or as a houseplant. This is truly a versatile herb.
If you want to add all-heal to your garden or houseplant collection, this is your complete growing guide.
All-heal is popular with gardeners and beneficial insects alike.
Where to Find a Valerian Plant
While you can grow all-heal from seed, this can be a slow process. It is easier to start with a young transplant purchased from a garden store or nursery. When selecting your specimen try to pick the healthiest possible specimen.
Don’t confuse true all-heal with red valerian (Centranthus ruber). While they bear some physical similarities these two attractive flowers are not related. Red valerian, or kiss me quick as it is also known, is a fragrant perennial flower popular with pollinators and butterflies. Its deep pink or red flowers are a popular choice in mixed cottage garden planting schemes.
Planting Valerian in Your Garden
The valerian plant is a perennial that is ideal for a range of planting schemes in USDA Zones 3 to 9. When positioned in full sun they flower in early summer. Flowering may be slightly later in the season if they are growing in a shadier spot. In the warmest areas a little afternoon shade helps to protect foliage from developing scorching or sunburn.
Grow in a sunny open position to encourage lots of flowers to form.
Plant in well draining soil. While these flowers prefer a sandy soil they do well in most soil profiles as long as it is well draining. In the wild they thrive in grassy meadows. If you are working planting in clay soil, amend and lighten it before planting. After planting, regularly work compost into the soil around the stem to keep the soil light and well draining.
While all-heal is a cold hardy specimen, in colder climates the foliage dies back in the fall. It returns again in the spring. After two years of steady growth the flower clump will be around 18 inches wide.
Work the soil over before planting, adding in any necessary amendments. Dig a hole in the soil large enough to fit in the pot currently holding the valerian plant. When placed in the hole the top of the root system should sit level with the soil.
When the hole is large enough, remove the transplant from its pot. Squeezing the sides loosens the soil, enabling you to slide the transplant out. You may need to cut the plastic pot away if it is particularly difficult to remove the valerian plant without damaging the root system.
Position your valerian plant in the center of the hole and backfill with a mix of soil and fresh potting soil or compost. Firm down the soil as you backfill the hole. Water well.
If you are planting more than one valerian plant, space them 12 to 24 inches apart.
Growing in Pots
You can also grow the valerian plant in a container. This enables growers in smaller spaces to enjoy the many attractions of all-heal. Alternatively why not cultivate a specimen as a fragrant houseplant?
Select a large pot, after a few years of growth the valerian plant forms a clump roughly 18 inches in diameter so the pot should be large enough to hold this mature growth. The pot should also have at least one drainage hole in its bottom. Clean the pot if it has previously held another specimen before filling with well draining potting soil and plant as described above.
How to Care for Valerian Plant
Once established these are pleasingly hardy specimens that tolerate unexpected shocks and harsh conditions well. As I have already mentioned, don’t worry if all-heal dies back in the fall, this is natural. New growth emerges the following spring.
Taller specimens may benefit from a stake or some support, particularly if planted in an open or exposed position. A bamboo cane provides sturdy support. Loosely tie the stem to the cane to prevent accidental damage.
Taller specimens may require support to prevent stems from snapping or toppling over.
Water well after planting. Continue to water regularly. Keeping the soil consistently moist helps the valerian plant to thrive.
These are phosphorus loving specimens that appreciate a regular application of a phosphorus-rich fertilizer throughout the growing season. Follow the instructions on the fertilizer packet for exact dose size and timings. A fertilizer rich in nitrogen can also be used in early spring, as new growth emerges, to encourage foliage production.
Avoid applying standard NPK balanced fertilizers to your valerian plant. This product can cause the root system to grow overly large.
When it comes to pruning, the valerian plant is pleasingly low maintenance. No regular pruning is required but you can cut away dead foliage in the fall, as it naturally dies away to keep the stems neat and tidy.
All-heal has a tendency to reseed. Cutting away spent flowers before they go to seed prevents this.
Combination and Companion Planting
When selecting a position for all-heal, remember to take its mature height into account. A mature specimen can reach around 5 ft. Position your valerian plant behind smaller flowers and herbs to prevent them from being smothered or overly shaded.
When growing in a mixed bed with other flowers or herbs, position towards the back of the flowerbed to avoid smaller specimens being shaded from the sun.
How to Propagate Valerian
The valerian plant is a pleasingly easy specimen to propagate. You can either harvest the seeds in late summer or lift and divide mature specimens. Either method is easy to follow, allowing you to produce lots of healthy new specimens for almost nothing.
Divisions are best made in the spring, either just before or as new growth emerges. This gives the newly separated specimen plenty of time to establish a healthy root system before winter.
Begin by digging a shovel into the ground a few inches from the main stem. Continue to circle the plant in this manner before using the shovel to lift the valerian plant from the ground. As you raise it from the ground, don’t worry if some of the smaller roots are broken. This is natural. Just try to keep as much of the main root ball intact as possible.
Gently brush away any remaining soil from the root ball. This enables you to clearly assess the health and size of the root ball. As you look you will see where natural separations are forming. Use the shovel to break the root ball into healthy sections, using the natural separation points to make easy, natural divisions. You may need to use a knife to cut roots that don’t easily separate.
Plant the divisions as described above 12 to 24 inches apart.
Growing from Seed
As the flower fades a seed develops. One seed forms per flower. When ripe it will be a toffee-brown color with a fluffy, dandelion like head.
Harvest the seeds before they fall from the stems. You can also purchase valerian seeds from seed catalogues or garden stores. Try to use the seeds within the first year or two of harvest or purchase. Older seeds are less likely to germinate.
Sow either directly into their final position in the fall or store in a labeled envelope and sow undercover in late winter, about 2 to 4 weeks before your last predicted frost date.
Sow seeds in growing trays filled with fresh potting soil about half an inch deep. Moisten the soil before planting. Cover the seeds lightly and place in a light position. Alternatively sow into a prepared seed bed either in the fall or in early spring, as soon as the last predicted frost date has passed.
Germination occurs when temperatures average between 65 and 68 ℉. Most seeds happily germinate in a greenhouse, however in cooler climates a VIVOSUN Seedling Heat Mat may help to improve germination rates. In ideal conditions seeds germinate within 3 weeks.
Following germination allow the seedlings to grow on, thinning out when they are large enough to handle. During this period keep the seedlings warm and the soil evenly moist.
When seedlings are 6 inches tall and the last frost has passed, harden them off before transplanting into their final position.
How to Harvest the Roots
Wait until the second fall or spring before starting to harvest roots.
The roots are best harvested after rainfall, when the soil is moist. At this point the roots are at their softest meaning that they are easier to harvest. If rain isn’t forecast, water the soil well the night before harvesting. This helps to prevent accidental damage.
Use a shovel to dig around the valerian plant, roughly 6 to 12 inches from the central stem. Once you have encircled the stem, dig down deeply, using the shovel to lift as much of the roots as possible. Alternatively, dig closer to the central stem with a fork. This enables you to lift the entire valerian plant without damaging large sections of the root.
Cut away any flowers and foliage before washing the roots. Hang the roots up to dry somewhere warm and dry. As they dry the roots can emit a strong aroma. You can also dry the roots in an oven at 200 fahrenheit. Keep the oven door slightly open and check the roots every 10 to 15 minutes until they are dry.
Store the roots whole or chopped up in an airtight container, away from direct sunlight. You can also grind the roots up into a fine powder.
The fragrant, vanilla scented flowers are a welcome addition to flower gardens and cut flower displays.
You can also cut the vanilla scented flowers for use in displays alongside other cut flowers.
While valerian isn’t classified as toxic, be careful when using. Ingesting the roots or foliage unprepared can cause symptoms including fatigue, headaches, nausea and dizziness.
Known for its calming effects, all-heal is an elegant, easy to grow addition to the garden. You can even grow it in a pot in your bedroom to help you sleep. As well as its many herbal benefits, these easy to grow, hardy herbs also help to calm pets and can attract scores of pollinators to the garden.
Jen is a master gardener, interior designer and home improvement expert. She has completed many home improvement, decor and remodeling projects with her family over the past 10 years on their 4,500 sf Victorian house. She is also a passionate farmer who keeps goats, chickens, turkeys cows and pigs on her farm, and an instructor for her community’s Organic and Sustainable Farming project.