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 Herbal Medicine: Valerian and Other Anti-Hysterics in European and American Medicine (1733-1936) 

Obviously, the two most-prescribed remedies for hysteria and related complaints were asafoetida and valerian. They never lostffavor throughout the period of over 200 years, and were still recommended 1n 1936 by Sollmann, but declined in popularity (in the United States, but not as much in Europe) in the 1940s,[35] valerian being dropped from the National Formulary in 1950.[36],37

As has been previously stated, valerian was one of the most commonly used of the above remedies of herbal origin for nervous disorders--and it most certainly is today. In addition, it is the herbal remedy of all the ones reviewed here that is most supported by modern research as a mild central nervous system sedative. Thus the next part of this paper will focus on this plant, starting with a short history of its use down through ancient times, and especially since the late 1600s when it began to be used particularly for its effect on the nervous system, and later, as it became the "drug of choice" for hysteria and what was known as "the vapors."

Because of the unevenness in quality of valerian drugs, there has been some controversy over the centuries about how effective it is as a curative agent, especially for nervous conditions such as epilepsy, hysteria, nervousness and sleeplessness but modern research has identified several active compounds and shown them to be active on the Central Nervous System.[38]

Botany: Common or garden valerian is a member of the family Valerianaceae Batsch., an evolutionarily advanced family of 10 genera characterized by mainly opposite, whorled or basal exstipulate leaves, an inferior 3-carpellate ovary with a persistent calyx (at times forming pappus) and sympetalous, irregular tubular corollas. Stamens are 1-4.

Valerian is placed in the genus Valeriana L., comprising 200 species worldwide[39],40. Other closely related genera include Valerianella Miller, Centranthus DC, and Nardostachys DC, all of which are commonly grown for medicine or as ornamental subjects.[41]

Although many species of Valeriana have been used for medicine through the centuries in a number of countries world-wide, the most commonly used species is Valeriana officinalis L.

Etiology: The name valerian or Valeriana was not mentioned by Hippocrates, Theophrastus, Pliny or Dioscorides, the major Greek authors from 500 B.C. until 100 A.D whose writings survive. Valerian first appeared in the literature sometime around the 9th or 10th century, but it is not certain whether the word originated from an earlier time in Greece, during the Roman Empire or later from Anglo-Saxon medicine or Arabian medicine (9th-12th centuries). Pickering (1879) mentions that the Greeks call V. tuberosa "valeriane"--a species mentioned by Pliny and Dioscorides. As early as 1515 Valeriana was repeatedly said to be synonymous with fu or phu--a plant described by Sibthorp and now accepted as V. dioscorides.[42]

Valeriana is mentioned in an Anglo-Saxon leechbook (a medicinal recipe book) from the 11th century.[46] The word Valeriana is from Latin, and is thought to derive from either valere, to be in health or valeo, to be strong, because of either the strong odor or the powerful healing properties ascribed to it by the ancients. Some attest that it was named after Valerius, who may have first used it in medicine.[47],48

Of the other two names for valerianaceous plants known from ancient times, nard and phu--the first may be derived from the Sanskrit nalada, meaning "odorant", giving rise to the Hebrew nerd.49 The Phu or fu of the ancients is usually considered to be a word of disgust over the strong smell of various valerian root drugs, especially when long-dried. A smell that is likened to well-seasoned dirty socks or an uncleaned gym locker after summer vacation.

Many names were popularly used in European countries for valerian throughout the middle ages, up to the present. In English, one sees theriacaria, amantilla, herba benedicta and setwell. The latter name was used by the common people, but said to more properly be applied to zedory.[50] The German name is baldrian, the French, valeriane. In Northern and Central Europe, most of the common names derive from "Vandel's Root", the meaning of which is unknown.

History Of Use: Hippocrates, the great physician and nature-healer (460-370 B.C.) used a kind of valerian as medicine.[51] Theophrastus of Eresos, the best-known ancient naturalist and student of Aristotle (370-286 B.C.) mentions V. dioscorides: "which has a smell like spikenard" as being used for perfume.[52] The spikenard of the ancients is another member of the Valerian family, Nardostachys jatamansi and will be covered later.

Dioscorides, a physician in Nero's army and the originator of the Materia Medica (54-68 A.D.) mentions several members of the valerian family--Indian, Syrian, Celtic and mountain Nard (Nardostachys jatamansi or Valeriana hardwickii, Patrinia scabiosaefolia, Valeriana celtica and Valeriana tuberosa) and "phou" (also called phu or fu), which is considered to be Valeriana dioscoridis and not V. officinalis as some past authors have stated.[53]

Although in modern times, valerian is best-known as a nervine, sedative, anti-hysteric and sleep-aid, the ancients favored it for numerous other uses. Dioscorides recommends the various nards for conditions that herbalists would use bitter and aromatic roots today--digestive problems, such as flatulence, nausea, stagnant liver (morbus hepaticus) and as a urinary tract remedy. Energetically, he categorizes the nards as warming and drying, giving the tastes as bitter, astringent and sweet. These plants were also recommended as an emmenagogue, for vaginal yeast infections ("ye whites"), as an anti-perspirant ("it is profitable to take away the smell of ye sweat"), as an antidote to poisons and for the making of potions and warming ointments.[54]

After Galen, the Greek authors were copied and recopied for over 1200 years. Dioscorides especially was considered the ultimate authority on materia medica as late as the 19th century. Although these centuries were considered mostly stagnant from a medical perspective, and the "golden age of herbalism" commenced only in the early 1500's, there were at least two major concentrations of medical and pharmaceutical knowledge, the Arabian school (8th-13th century) and the school of Salerno (1050-1220).

It is evident from many of the old texts that valerian was highly recommended during this period of history. It was known to the leeches as an important medicine in their "wort-craft." Its use appears to be transmitted from the Arabian school to the school of Salerno by Constantinus Africanus. From there, it appears in most herbals, pharmacopeias, materia medicas and dispensatories up to the present--a universally-known and popular herb throughout the ages, not only in western medicine, but in India and Chinese Medicine as well.

The early 1500s until the mid-1600s was the "golden age of herbalism." Authors or great herbals such as Matthiolus, Dodoens, Turner, Gerard and Parkinson rarely recommended valerian for nervous diseases--but rather as an emmenagogue, carminative, for coughs and asthma and as a diuretic.[55]

It wasn't until the time of Columna (1567-1650) that valerian became renowned as a capital remedy in nervous disorders, as the Italian botanist used the remedy (after consulting Dioscorides) for his epilepsy and it cured him.[56] Although later, it is said that he suffered a relapse. It wasn't until 50 years later that valerian was again taken up by the medical profession for nervous disorders, but many testimonials and recommendations by practitioners led to its being firmly established as a primary nerve remedy.[57]

Valerian was conspicuous in many "official" drug books from the late 1600s until well into the 20th century. A good reference point for "official" works of plant drugs is the first London Pharmacopeia, "Pharmacopoeia Londinensis," of 1618, which was the first of the "official", or nationally-mandated drug books in Great Britain, continuing also with the Edinburgh Dispensatory, then later the British Pharmacopoeia. This early work was a direct model for the first U.S. Pharmacopeia and was influenced itself by works from the 16th century, such as the Augsburg Pharmacopoeia and the Dispensatory of Valerus Cordus (1546). The project was first talked about in 1585, and was written entirely in Latin, later translated into English by the infamous Nicolas Culpeper. Culpeper felt that the authors of the "College of Physicians" who wrote it were being too secretive and desired to make the formulas and other information on herbal use available to the masses. His herbal was probably the most popular of all time, and is still going through new editions today (Culpeper, color herbal).

The Pharmacopoeia contains many herbal simples and preparations, but also over 162 drugs from animals, animal parts and excretia (such as saliva, sweat and urine)--similar to drugs included in the materia medica of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Ironically, these official works were used mainly by the "regular" physicians of the day--doctors who followed the traditions of Dioscorides and Galen. The "quacks" of the day were the followers of Paracelsus who used mineral salts, such as lead and arsenic compounds--the forerunners of synthetic medicine.

The following table condenses many of the early uses and indications for valerian in official works from 1618 until

Year, Work, Preparations, Indications & Notes
1618 London infusion, tinc., None given (Indian Pharmacop. ammoniated tinc. and Celtic Nard also listed); valerian official from 1618-1948
1820 U.S. tinc., ammoniated Official from 1820-1936[58] Pharmacopeia tincture
1830 U.S. tinc., ammoniated Antispasmodic, tonic,Pharmacopeia tincture emmenagogue; dose 1 to 4 GM
1888 National fluid extract, Official from 1888-1946[59] Formulary ammoniated tincture

The major preparation of the British Pharmacopeia is Tinctura Valerianae Ammoniata, which contains valerian, oil of nutmeg, oil of lemon and ammonia. Grieve says of it: "it is an extremely nauseous and offensive preparation." A distilled water and syrup of valerian are official in the French Codex, and various valerianates are commonly used in Europe as antispasmodics. They are made by reacting synthetic valerenic acid with various bases (as of zinc).

Valerian was also official in the Pharmacopeias of many other countries world-wide. For instance, in 1967 it was still official in the Pharmacopeias of Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Chile, Czechoslovakia, France, German, Hungary, Yugoslavia, The Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Roumania, Russia, Spain, and Switzerland. In India, V. wallichii DC. was official, in Japan, V. officinalis var. latifolia.60

Although valerian is not official in the U.S. today, it is probably the most common herbal remedy recommended by herbalists, naturopathic doctors and chiropractors for mild forms of insomnia and tension. In Europe hundreds of preparations are sold in drug stores, markets and apothecaries. As herbal medicine is becoming more widespread in the U.S., there is every indication that it will continue to prosper as a mild sedative herb to be recommended where stronger drugs are not advisable or necessary.


1. Berkow, R. (ed.). 1982. The Merck Manual. Rahway, NJ: Merck & Co., Inc.

2. Wilson, C.O., et al. 1977. Textbook of Organic Medicinal and Pharmaceutical Chemistry. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Co.

3. AMA Division of Drugs. 1983. AMA Drug Evaluations. Chicago: American Medical Association.

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 About The Author
Christopher Hobbs LAc, AHG Christopher Hobbs is a fourth generation herbalist and botanist with over 30 years experience with herbs. Founder of Native Herb Custom Extracts (now Rainbow Light Custom Extracts) and the Institute for Natural Products......more
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