The great Wild Valerian, or Heal-all (from valere, to be well), grows abundantly throughout this country in moist woods, and on the banks of streams. It is a Benedicta, or blessed herb, being dedicated to the Virgin Mary, as preservative against poisons; and it bears the name of Capon's tail, from its spreading flowers.
When found among bushes, in high pastures, and on dry heaths, it is smaller, with the leaves narrower, but the roots more aromatic, and less nauseous.
The Valerian family of plants is remarkable for producing aromatic and scented genera, which are known as "Nards" (the Spikenard of
Scripture), and which are much favored in Asiatic harems under several varieties, according to the situation of growth. Judas valued the box of ointment made from the Spikenard (Valeriana Jatamansi), with which Mary anointed the feet of our Savior at two hundred denarii (?6: 9s: 2d.).
We have also the small Marsh Valerian, which is wild, and the cultivated Red Valerian, of our cottage gardens.
The roots of our Wild Valerian exercise a strange fascination over cats, causing an ecstasy of delight in these animals, who become almost intoxicated when brought into contact with the Simple. And rats strangely exhibit the same fondness for these roots which they grub up. It has been suggested that the Pied Piper of Hamelin may have carried one of such roots in his wallet.
They have been given from an early period with much success for hysterical affections, and for epileptic attacks induced by strong emotional excitement, as anger or fear: likewise, they serve as a safe and effectual remedy against habitual constipation when active purgatives have failed to overcome this difficulty.
The plant is largely cultivated for the apothecary's uses about the villages near Chesterfield, in Derbyshire. It is named Setwall in the North of England; and, says Gerard, "No broths, pottage, or physicall meats be worth anything if Setwall (a corruption from Zedoar), be not there":
"They that will have their heale,
Must put Setwall in their keale."
The Greeks employed one kind of Valerian named Phu for hanging on doors and windows as a protective charm. But some suppose this to have been a title of aversion, like our English "faugh" against any thing which stinks. Dr. Uvedale introduced the Valerian into his garden, at Eltham Palace, before 1722; and Uvedale House still exists in Church Street, at Chelsea. The herb is sometimes called Cut-heal, not because, as Gerard thought, it is "useful for slight cuts and
wounds," but from its attributed efficacy in disorders of the womb (kutte cowth). Joined with Manna, Valerian has proved most useful in epilepsy; and when combined with Guiacum it has resolved scrofulous tumors. In Germany imps are thought to be afraid of it.
At Plymouth, the broad-leaved Red Valerian goes by the name of Drunken Sailor, and Bovisand soldier, the larger sort being distinguished as Bouncing Bess, whilst the smaller, paler kind is known as Delicate Bess throughout the West of Devon.
An officinal tincture is made from the rhizome of Valerian with spirit of wine, of which from one to two teaspoonfuls may be given for a dose, with a little water. Also a tincture (ammoniated) is prepared with aromatic spirit of ammonia on the rhizome, and this is considerably stronger; from twenty to forty drops is a sufficient dose with a spoonful or two of water.
The essential oil of Valerian lessens the sensibility of the spinal cord after primary stimulation of its nervous substance. A drop of this oil in a spoonful of milk will be a proper dose: especially in some forms of constipation.
Used externally, by friction, the volatile oil of Valerian has proved beneficial as a liniment for paralyzed limbs. The powdered root mixed in snuff is of efficacy for weak eyes.
The cultivated plant is less rich in the volatile oil than the wild herb. On exposure to the air Valerian oil becomes oxidised, and forms valerianic acid, which together with an alcohol, "borneol," constitutes the active medicinal part of the plant.
The root also contains malic, acetic, and formic acids, with a resin, tannin, starch, and mucilage. It is by first arousing and then blunting the reflex nervous activities of the spinal cord, that the oil of Valerian overcomes chronic constipation.
Preparations of Valerian act admirably for the relief of nervous headache associated with flatulence, and in a person of sensitive temperament. They likewise do good for infantine colic, and they diminish the urea; when the urine contains it in excess.
The Greek Valerian is another British species, found growing occasionally in the North of England and in Scotland, being known as the blue Jacob's Ladder. It is also named "Make bate," because said to set a married couple quarrelling if put in their bed. This must be a play on its botanical name Polemonium, from the Greek polemos, war. It is called Jacob's Ladder from its successive pairs of leaflets.
The Primitive Simplers presented here show the way of life in other generations, it is not suggested or recommended trying them yourself.
History of Herbs
Herbs for Beginners
Drying & Preserving Herbs
Indoor Herb Gardening
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