Valerian is a wonderful herb that I simply cannot be without! It has been used since at least the days of ancient Greece and Rome, so of course it is steeped in history. Mrs. Grieve says that "It is supposed to be the Phu (an expression of aversion from its offensive odour) of Dioscorides and Galen, by whom it was it was extolled as an aromatic and diuretic".
It was so highly esteemed during medieval times that it was given the name All-Heal. Another common name was Setewall or Setwall, as in these lines from Chaucer:
"There sprange up herbes great and small, The liquorice and the setewall"
In his Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes, Gerard writes that "it hath been had (and is to this day among the poore people of our Northerne parts) in such veneration amongst them, that no broths, pottage or physicall meats are worth anything, if Setwall were not at an end: whereupon some woman Poet or other hath made these verses.
"They that will have their heale, Must put Setwall in their keale."
Historically, it was used for a wide variety of ailments including epilepsy, neuralgic pains, cramps, hysteria, nervous unrest, heart palpitations, to strengthen eyesight, as a remedy for cholera, and even to stop a fight! During both World Wars, it was used to help calm the nerves of civilians during air-raids, as well as for soldiers suffering from shell shock. And it is still in use now to relieve pain and anxiety and to promote sleep.
Mrs. Grieve also says that "Valerian has an effect on the nervous system of many animals, especially cats, which seem to be thrown into a kind of intoxication by its scent". For this reason, it is called Cat's Valerian, and it can actually be substituted for Catnip! According to Mrs. Grieve, "it is equally attractive to rats and is often used by rat catchers to bait their traps. It has been suggested that the famous Pied Piper of Hamelin owed his irresistible power over rats to the fact that he secreted Valerian roots about his person".
A more recent, but still old-fashioned name for Valerian is Garden Heliotrope, because the flowers have, as Louise Beebe Wilder writes, "the delicious fragrance of real Heliotrope". In A Woman's Hardy Garden (1903), Helena Rutherfurd Ely describes its scent as "a most delicious odour like vanilla", and George Ellwanger, in The Garden's Story (1889) writes, "The creamy trusses of the tall valerian are a hive of sweetness". Yet not everyone has such a favorable opinion. My sister insists that it smells like dirty socks, and thinks that Phu is a fitting name! Mrs. Grieve describes it as a somewhat peculiar, but not exactly unpleasant smell". In Flowering Plants, Grasses, Sedges & Ferns of Great Britain (1899), Anne Pratt says, "To many of us, the powerful scent of Valerian is unpleasing; but this odour, still stronger in the roots, is much prized in the East, some of the most valued perfumes being made from the roots of various species". I think the fragrance is heavenly, and its comparison to Heliotrope is well-deserved! Perhaps the name Phu was given on account of the more powerful smell of the roots, which are the part used medicinally.
Interestingly, Valerian seems to have gone somewhat out of fashion in the early 20th century, at least in this country. In 1903, Mrs. Ely writes that it was "seen now-a-days only in old-fashioned gardens. I am told it cannot be bought of horticulturists". And Mrs. Wilder, writing in 1916, says that "It is so old-fashioned and out of fashion that it is not always easy to procure". Happily, many gardeners still appreciated its virtues and shared it with others who were less fortunate. Mrs. Ely says that she first obtained a single plant in this way, and "from this one plant there are now in the garden a number of large clumps several feet in diameter and I have given away certainly fifty roots". It is now offered by many seed companies who specialize in old-fashioned and heirloom flowers. And, to my surprise and delight, it has turned out to be the best selling of my seeds this year!
Valerian is a perennial hardy to zone 4, and is very easy to grow. In its first year, it develops a clump of very handsome leaves, and by early summer of the second year, to quote Mrs. Wilder again, "it bears a flat head of pinkish lacelike bloom at the end of its four feet of slender stem".
It is a lovely old herb "well worth having, for it lends a light grace to whatever part of the garden it occupies, and combines charmingly with the other flowers of its day".