On Valerian and the Medicine of Aroma

Valerian thrives in the cold, sprouting to life before most other garden herbs. With tiny early spring plants, identification can be tricky sometimes because many leaves look similar to each other. Whenever possible, I rely on my sense of smell at these times. In valerian’s case, that means digging my fingers into the soil to gently rub against the roots.

The roots carry the unique aroma of valerian’s medicine, and they are the part most often harvested for medicine. The sweet, complex deep note of the fresh root’s aroma is truly unique and pleasing, and this is what we find when we make contact with the living roots. Once harvested however, the pleasing effect wanes as the aroma slowly turns to something much more akin to putrid—or better yet, stink-foot-like!  Catching a whiff of it can certainly cause one to recoil.

The recoiling effect delivers an important message for us, however.  A message that is specific for a body and a nervous system stuck in a pattern which doesn’t serve us. Valerian is a powerful nervine herb that triggers a shift from tension and anxiety to deep relaxation. While of course it’s true that soothing aromatic herbs like lavender or chamomile can effectively do the same thing, and they are indeed helpful nervine herbs, sometimes their effect can’t be reached because a pattern is so rutted or deep seated in a system that it just won’t easily change. Psychological patterns in the mind, or tension patterns held in tissues can stubbornly hold on, as many of us have witnessed first hand or in others.

The initial response to valerian medicine is a sort of repulsion.   The repulsion triggers a further tensing up, which is then very quickly followed by a deep release. The rutted pattern is then broken by this initial disruptive force.  Repulsion can literally be defined as “re-pulsing”—in other words, changing up the pulse, the current or the pattern that has been dominating the system.  When something is repulsive to us, we want to remove ourselves from it immediately.   In the case of valerian, the dominating pulse in the system carries a frequency of tension.  Valerian helps us to see that frequency, which is not serving us, as “repulsive”.  The system is then quickly triggered to toss it off so that we can shift into a frequency (or current, or pulse) of relaxation instead.

I think of valerian’s action as being similar to a well-known relaxation technique.  You may know of this one: you consciously tense up all your muscles, holding as tightly as you can before releasing with a big exhale into deep relaxation.  The practice of initially conjuring up even more tension than you’re already carrying before releasing it all can bring about a much deeper shift into relaxation. It reveals to your body that which you clearly don’t want.  And it then triggers a recoil as held patterns get shaken up.

I remember finding valerian growing beside a cold, glacier-fed waterfall on Vancouver Island many years ago.  My teacher Sheelagh had just helped me to identify the herb growing in the wild a few days before, and together, our herb study group had marveled at that beautiful, unique scent of the living roots.  On this day, I was climbing up a rock beside the waterfall when I began to smell that incomparable scent of those roots again.  I looked around, and realized that my fingers, gripping between two rocks, had disturbed a colony of tiny valerian plants.  In an effort to minimize damage, I removed three of the tiny plants that I had unwittingly disturbed, patting in and making more room for the rest of the colony to grow more strongly there.

I made a tiny tincture from those tiny fresh roots later that day.  The tincture was so tiny in fact, that it fit into a little glass salve jar, and that was where it stayed, with the roots kept in, until its medicine had been used up.  I used that tincture topically, as though it was a slave.  I found it to be the most effective herbal medicine I had ever experienced when I applied it to the tense muscles of my shoulder blades–the location where I, and other members of my family traditionally tend to hold our patterns of tension.  The effect of recoiling, and then immediately allowing flow was deeply palpable to me, and my ability to release the armored tension I held there felt almost miraculous.  I had the strong sense that growing beside the cascading glacial waterfall significantly helped to enhance the pure action of this medicine as an agent of flow.

That first experience with Valerian taught me so much that has remained with me to this day as I continue to work with this medicine in my practice.  I learned about how the medicine works on a visceral level.  I learned that a little can go a very long way.  I also learned how the environment where a medicine grows can have a profound influence on its character and efficacy.  I learned to use scent as one of my primary identifiers of plants when I am out in the wild.  And I gained some insight into the concept of shifting deep patterning, sometimes through triggering an initial recoil, with the remarkable power of aromatic medicine.

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