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Valerian Growing and Harvesting

Valerian root harvest

Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) has to be one of my personal favourite herbs. It has an alluring airy yet extremely grounding soporific nature to it. No wonder I love it for bringing on the deepest yet dream filled sleeps. It’s allure is also felt by our cats, who tend to claim their own Valerian plant in the garden each year and over the season they play with, nibble at it and generally fawn all over the poor plants half unearthed roots. The frenzy of cat excitement that follows is nothing other than remarkable!  Of course, we have many plants that

our pets and the feathered and furry natives of Ivywood are allowed to use freely whilst plants we make medicines from are protected and tended to by ourselves. Over our many herb growing years we have learnt so much as herbalists from watching our goats, our pigs, our hens, our ducks, our bees, the wildlife, and our house pets all avail of medicinal plants and trees as they need. We count ourselves blessed to witness, with fascination the innate behaviour and profound understanding offered from these teachers. Our Valerian addicted cats have brought us much entertainment!
Needless to say, each year I demand that we grow a large amount of Valerian! We have a beautiful native Valerian growing here at Ivywood that is a prolific. Valerian is one of the herbal tinctures I always travel with and ensure I have a good stock of in our herbal dispensary.

For anyone wishing to have a stash of Valerian roots to dry or tincture if you are starting from scratch you’ll be waiting a year from sowing to harvest. When is the best time to sow Valerian? We usually start sowing all our perennial plant seeds in February on heated benches for sale through our herb nursery. If you are beginning without a heated bench you should get your seeds sown by the end of March. Give the seeds a little seed compost cover and ensure they are kept moist and warm. Your little seedling should show up within 2 weeks. With Valerian seeds sometimes germination can be sporadic taking between 6 days to 4 weeks so don’t give up on them if they seem slow. If you are sowing wild harvested Valerian seeds they can take 6 months to germinate… but they do finally appear. When they pop up continue to keep them watered and make sure they have enough light so as not to get leggy. They will now grow fast so don’t be shy to pot them on before their roots form a solid mass in your seed tray. Follow the classic rule of only potting on after the true leaves form. Pot on into small pots and either keep inside until early May when frosts have passed or harden them off slowly.

When choosing a bed to plant your Valerian babies into remember it’s the root you’ll be harvesting next Spring so nothing too shallow or stony. Valerian roots are fine and enjoy a more sandy soil but also like moisture. Success will follow as long as they are not placed into shallow hard waterlogged daub. Preparing the bed well to create a looser soil will pay off when harvest time comes.
When Valerian is grown in seed compost or nutrient dense herb beds where they are given ample space they will be bushier and the leaves will grow fatter in comparison to plants growing in cramped beds or along road verges. This is why the ‘wild’ Valerians seem much thinner and scragglier with taller more serrated looking leaves. No need to use any kind of comfrey feed or to mulch beds. By winter time there will be no need to cut back the plants as they will not have shot up stalks and produced flower heads. If you are wondering how old a Valerian plant is in your garden – If it is flowering its over 2 years old. They will not flower in the first year.

By January it is time to harvest as Valerian is one of the root crops that keeps fine through our usual damp winters. We always wait to see the small red growing tips emerge (shown in the picture). I prefer to harvest roots when the weather has been dry so I can shake or brush off most of the soil before giving them a very quick wash. Valerian will be easy to dig up if the soil isn’t too heavy. Rinse roots lightly to remove any soil, remembering to split the small root ball in four and rinse out any dirt inside. When harvesting wild growing Valerian root they can be hard to find amongst the Meadowsweet, Nettle, Galium and Bramble roots of an Irish hedgerow. The smell is a good indicator along with the red growing tips. Making yourself familiar with all aspects of a plant from seedling to root appearance, smell and taste is essential if you are planning on wild harvesting. Please make sure you have honed your plant identification skills.

After harvesting and rinsing leave the roots to dry out for a night to slightly air dry. Then they are ready for tincturing or further drying. We prefer to tincture our Valerian root fresh each Spring when the plant is a year old. We find the strength and potency of the fresh tincture is unbelievable. We tincture our Valerian root at 1:2 45% using rye ethanol.
Ross instantly knows if I am looking to enter that deep sleep state as the Valerian bottle is opened (my own personal glass bottle of Valerian and Scullcap is kept at my bedside next to a precariously stacked pile of half read herbal books) and that all too familiar pungent aroma is unleashed around the room. Being especially careful none of our cats are nearby when I take my dose! Luckily Ross is also a big Valerian fan. We may not have made it together all these years if he wasn’t! ;)

If you would like to know a little more about some of Valerians medicinal uses take a look at a wee video made from our old farm in Sligo. You are probably asking how do I tincture Valerian roots? Check out our Making Herbal Remedies Practical Course or to learn more about growing specific medicinal herbs check out our Grow Your Own Medicinal Herb Garden. We also run a more in-depth course for herbal practitioners covering both growing and herbal processing for clinic. You can find that course here. If you would like to buy Valerian plants, grown by us from seed, which will be ready to plant straight out into your garden you can find them here in our nursery shop.