I learned early in this adventure that herbs are probably the best bet you’ve got going when a) you know absolutely nothing about gardening b) you have no actual land to garden on and c) you tend to forget basic principles like “plants require watering.” Let me advise you, if you hit all three marks like I did: get a small pot (the drugstore probably has them for a buck or less), buy a small herb (I recommend thyme, the stuff is practically idiotproof) and a small bag of dirt (again, drugstore), put said herb into said dirt into said pot, and put it into some sort of sun — inside, outside, whatever. There. You’re good.
Once you’ve killed a few, you’ll start remembering the watering part. And then you’ll be ready to handle more interesting herbs, like valerian.
This is a two-year-old valeriana officianalis, started from seed: it’s nicknamed “The Brave Little Valerian” because I figured I would kill it as a seedling, but didn’t, and then I figured I would kill it when I dug it up last fall and cut off its roots, but didn’t. It’s still here and in my face, with weird-smelling flowers that even the bees don’t particularly appreciate and the squirrels that predate my backyard avoid at all costs. This is one hellraiser of an herb, and it’s well worth cultivating for more than a few reasons.
First: the ancient Romans used this plant, the medieval English thought it could cure practically everything (it was called “all-heal”), and it was included in the United States Pharmacopoeia from 1820 to 1942 as a tranquilizer. If you’ve got a history like that, you’ve got a track record worth considering. Right now, valerian is recognized (particularly by the Germans, in their Commission E reports) as a mild sedative and anxiety-reliever that has few, if any, aftereffects. You can pick up capsules with powdered valerian root at most health-food stores. Many people report that valerian helps with insomnia even better than prescription drugs.
Second: There’s no reason to go through life without cultivating something that smells so bad that it got the historical name “Phu.” As Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs notes, “[t]he whole plant, with the exception of its flower, has a fetid smell.” I hate to disagree with an authority as august as Rodale’s, but as I noted above, even the bees approach the flowers like starving kids given broccoli for dinner.
Third: The act of harvesting this plant for its useful parts has a certain atavistic pleasure. Observe:
These are the roots of the Brave Little Valerian, after its first year. The active compounds of valerian are reportedly concentrated in its roots, but boy does this plant not want to give them up. It’s probably perfectly happy nodding peacefully off in the sun day after day and just wants to be left alone. Alas, life is hard, even for plants. After more than enough time sweating and wrestling and cursing, I managed to get this into the kitchen. This picture is after about an hour of soaking and vigorous washing. It hardly bears mention that this might not be a project for the easily bored or frustrated.
Once the soaking and washing are done, it’s time to chop. Believe me, after an hour of trying to wash the dirt off these roots, you’re more than ready to take a sharp knife to them. (Actually, you’re thinking about a chainsaw at this point, just for the sheer roaring satisfaction). But keep the end goal in mind. The raw herb root can be used immediately in infusions or decoctions, or preserved in tinctures. Tinctures draw the active elements out of an herb and preserve them fairly indefinitely in carriers like alcohol, glycerin, or vegetable oils, while infusions (like hot-water teas) and decoctions (cold-water steeping) can provide the benefits of an herb on a more immediate basis. Celestial Seasonings offers a tea mix of chamomile and valerian root for insomnia (“Sleepytime Extra Wellness Tea”). For me, that’s the whole point of this exercise: to get an organic, homegrown valerian root for a tea mix with my chamomile.
Here’s the Brave Little Valerian chopped and ready for the dehydrator. While you can dry herbs in other ways — in the oven on low heat, or in the sun outside, or spread on mesh sweater-dryers, or hanging on accordion laundry racks — in my experience, a dedicated dehydrator produces the best results. I use an Excalibur 9-rack machine, but I’ve done all of the above too. The jar on the right side of the picture below shows what I came up with after all the effort.
What’s probably most remarkable about this entire exercise is what happened after I ripped up the Brave Little Valerian and chopped off its roots. I was left with the “root crown,” which is a hard, circular, and fairly mystifying object. Not knowing what else to do with it (well, I did briefly consider it as a dog frisbee), I put it back into a pot and watered it. (See second paragraph).
It not only re-rooted and branched and leaved, but has now flowered for the first time. I am pleased to report that The Brave Little Valerian abides.