SwynWraig: Valerian at Imbolc

Swynwriag – Harvesting the Valerian root


By Priestess of Cerridwen Edwina Hodkinson BSc(Hons)

Member of the National Institute of Medical Herbalists


It’s Imbolc and time of the Swynraig or wise woman; Although the days are starting to get slightly longer, it’s still cold, grey and damp. I slip my fingers through the dark cold soil, pulling free pungent, white roots. They are entwined in a root mass and it’s hard to separate them from each other. There are small leaf buds forming that I know will grow into tall leafy stalks and flowers in summer and take over this corner of my herb bed. I use a small spade to help me get them up.  Life is returning to the soil as an earthworm wriggles from out the root mass and new shoots.  I put the root mass in a bowl so I can do the first rinsing of outside as its full of soil.


I am harvesting some of my Valerian root as I need some more tincture. The last one was pretty potent and helped a patient of mine get some much needed sleep. The Valerian has been invasive in my garden this year, so I know there will be much more of this to harvest as soon as it starts to emerge from where it shouldn’t be. My cat is happy and welcomes any exposure to Valerian root; fresh or dry. It makes her roll around and push her head against my earth-coated hands.


When most of the soil has been washed off outside, I take it into the kitchen, glad to warm my cold fingers under the warm tap. There is more soil to remove and after  chopping the white roots I carry on rinsing until the water is completely clear to remove the last of the soil. Chopping even more finely to increase surface area I put it in a jar and cover with vodka. It’s put in a dark corner of the kitchen and every few days I open it to stir and shake it. The tincture is darkening and pungent, like sweet sweaty socks it fills my kitchen. I don’t mind the smell as this will be good medicine. In a month’s time I will strain it through a muslin and then bottle and label as Valerian Tincture.


Valerian – Valeriana officinalis

There are about 150 species of Valerian growing all over the world. The one we use in Western herbal medicine is Valeriana officinalis. It is not only beneficial for humans but can be used with cats and horses too. Cats love to roll in it and often dig up the roots. One of my cats ripped open a bag of dried Valerian root I found her rolling around it in ecstasy.


Valerian comes from the Latin “Valere” meaning “To be in health.” Other names for Valerian have been “all-heal” and “Cut finger.” Old names from Europe include Moonwort and Elfherb.

Valerian is a native perennial wild plant found growing in damp places by streams, ponds and in boggy areas. It’s pretty common in damp woodlands in Lancashire where I live. It can also grow well in gardens.

It has tall pink blooms and a very pungent root. It reaches about 4-5 feet in height.

Valerian is a very well-known and popular nervine that is a mineral-rich tonic nourishing the whole nervous system. It has a similar action to Benzodiazepines (Diazepam or Valium). Benzodiazepines potentiate the binding of the major neurotransmitter called GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) to its receptor which is a bit like a lock and key mechanism. When we take Valerian in a tea or tincture this rise in GABA decreases activity in the nervous system helping to produce feelings of calm, and relaxation boosting our mood

Valerian is so effective as a nerve tonic that it was used after WW1 for shell shock and PTSD. Today modern Herbalists use Valerian for anxiety, stress, agitation, panic attacks, irritability, anger, insomnia, headaches and exhaustion. I find from my own use experience that Valerian can have a grounding effect which can be useful when people are stuck in their heads which is often when people have panic and anxiety. Valerian can ground and can help them feel more connected to their body and the Earth.


During the anti-fracking protests I was part of a front-line team of Herbalists called the “Wild Sistas”. We used Valerian in our warrior drops along with Skullcap and Rose to help people cope with the high levels of stress and anxiety associated with front-line direct action and protests. It was very effective with most people we worked with and developed a street reputation for calm. Many people using it said it felt grounding, calmed their anger and anxiety connecting them to the earth. In my private practice, I find warrior drops are powerfully effective in helping with menopausal anxiety and panic attacks giving people that warrior strength and courage to cope with life’s challenges and struggles.


Valerian is a great nerve tonic helping to support a depleted and exhausted nervous system. It is used with chronic and severe stress where the whole system needs to be relaxed. Valerian is relaxing for smooth muscle helping with stress-related physical conditions such as muscle tension, headaches, IBS and other nerve-related stress disorders of the bowel. Valerian also has pain-relieving properties and is great for muscular aches, pains and headaches.


Valerian can have different effects on different people. For a small minority of people, it can have a stimulant effect causing restlessness and wakefulness, so if using it for the first time often it’s best to try it earlier in the day to test its effects. American herbalist 7Song finds that 1 in 10 people become wired rather than calmed after taking Valerian. I noticed this stimulation effect on people when I do herb tastings in workshops and whereas most of a class can feel relaxed and calm there are always a few that can feel “over-stimulated like they have had a large shot of caffeine”


The classic use of Valerian seems to be helping people to sleep. My experience of using it is not as knock-out medicine as with pharmaceuticals but rather a herb that just relaxes the system and calms the mind so much we naturally fall asleep.

A meta-analysis of numerous small studies show that Valerian can significantly improve sleep quality by up to 80% compared with a placebo and that there were none of the hangover effects of other sedatives. But it does suggest that the studies are small and there may be some publication bias. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4394901/


Valerian has also been used for people coming off addictive substances, tranquilizers, barbiturates and other hard drugs. A few years ago I supported the homeless camps and activists taking care of the homeless in the Manchester squats. One of the conditions that activists had was that the squats needed to be drug free zones which meant that some people needed to come off the street drug Spice. The effect of spice withdrawal was terrible anxiety. We used warrior drugs to good effect in supporting people to come off spice by calming the anxiety.


Cautions: Valerian is generally regarded as being safe to use and non-addictive, although its good to avoid prolonged use and substituting with other herbs such as Passionflower, Lime blossom, Lemon balm or Hops for a break. Excessive doses may cause headaches, muscle spasms, insomnia, or palpitations. There has been no research done to prove its safety with pregnant women and breastfeeding.

Dosage: 5-10 drops of fresh Valerian root tincture to calm and soothe the nervous system. 20 – 30 drops are useful as a sleep inducer.

Take 1-2 teaspoons of fresh or dried Valerian root per cup, and steep in cold water for 8-12 hours, strain, heat and drink at bedtime, or alternatively cover and simmer for 10 mins and drink a cup before bedtime.


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