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Valerian: sleep aid for humans, catnip for felines

May 8, 2012 |  8:20 am

ValerianThe Global Garden, our series on multicultural L.A. as seen through the lens of its landscapes, returns to the Fountain Avenue Community Garden this week, where Charlene Gawa has planted a soothing bit of botanical history called valerian.

The 10th century name stems from the Latin verb meaning "to heal." It was popular among ancient cultures from Europe to Asia; one variety was used by Native Americans, sometimes as a food. The root of Valerian is used as a relaxant and sleep aid, its popularity as an herbal medicine diminished with the rise of the synthetic Valium.

Although the flowers smell pleasant -- a cross between vanilla and cherry pie -- the feathery leaves and roots are odoriferous. Old socks is the most common descriptor. Cats adore it. If not planted away from felines, it will be reduced to a nubbin quickly. You can rub cat toys with the leaves or make a satchel to keep Tabby happy. Dogs and rats also like the smell.

Discourage digging by planting valerian firmly in the ground and mounding rocks around the base.  Originally a marsh plant, this perennial is a heavy feeder. It can take partial sun or shade, getting as tall as 5 feet. If harvesting the roots is your aim, clip off flowers to encourage growth below soil. Wash and clean the roots and then toast (don't burn) in a low-heat oven until they become brittle.

Valerian can be grown from seed (you can try mountainroseherbs.com) but it can be tricky. The seeds take a lot of water and germinate slowly. A better bet is to cut a section off the crown of an established plant or buy a seedling. Marina del Rey Garden Center usually has it in stock. And if you're growing valerian, now is the time when you should be separating older plants to provide room for new roots.

-- Jeff Spurrier

The Global Garden appears here on Tuesdays. For an easy way to follow future installments, join our Facebook page for gardening in the West.

Valerian 2

The foliage of valerian: like catnip to some four-legged admirers.


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Photos: Ann Summa