sHome | Next | Previous | Index | Purchase book

Idaho Mountain Wildflowers

Valerian Family, Valerianaceae

The word “valerian” presumably was derived from the Latin word valere meaning to be strong, or healthy for the plants’ supposed medicinal worth. Chaucer mentioned the plant ca. 1386. The family includes only nine genera and 400 species. While most grow in the north temperate zone, a few are found in the South American Andes. The common European garden heliotrope, Valeriana officinalis L. (its species name implies “of the apothecary shop”), resembles our Sitka valerian, common in Idaho’s mountains. The roots of the European plant contain a pharmacologically active principle, valerianic acid, said to act as a sedative and sleep aid; presumably the same substance occurs in our plants. Valerian flowers are small, mostly white, clustered, with five petals and three stamens. There are usually paired opposing leaves below the inflorescence. Toward the base, the leaves are whorled, and often compound. Plants belonging to three different genera of Valerianaceae grow in the Northwest, but the four species of genus Valeriana shown here are the only members of the family that we have seen in our mountains.

Sitka valerian, Valeriana sitchensis Bong. (left). The Sitka valerian, or mountain heliotrope, common in Idaho, is usually found growing in the moist open shade of evergreen forests. The plants bloom in late spring at montane elevations, and later in the subalpine zone. Usually one cluster of small white flowers is borne on each stem. Groups of opposing lanceolate leaves appear at intervals along the stem, growing so closely together as to appear whorled. The leaves are pinnately compound at the base, usually with five leaflets. The plants spread by their roots, so several are often found growing together in one place. Three stamens and a pistil extend well beyond the flowers’ five petals, giving the flower head a feathery look. The species name, sitchensis, refers to the Russian settlement of Sitka on Baranof Island, where the plant was first collected by Karl Heinrich Mertens (1796-1830) while on a Russian round-the-world journey (1836-1839).

Edible valerian, Valeriana edulis Nutt. ex Torr. & A. Gray  (right), or tobacco root, is a conspicuously leafy plant with crowded creamy-white flower clusters on each of several thick stems. The species name, edulis, means “edible” referring to the plants’ bulky roots. Although these were gathered, eaten, and apparently enjoyed by Native Americans, they are, by report, “the most horrid food ever ingested.” (Harrington, HD, Edible Native Plants of the Rocky Mountains). Valerian roots, from which the medically active compound valerianic acid is extracted, have an unpleasant odor which some have compared to smelly socks; it is also said to have a catnip effect on cats..

Sharp-leaf valerian, Valeriana acutiloba Rydb. (leftt) has softly bristled seeds, explaining another common name, “downy-fruited valerian.” The name acutiloba refers to the plants’ pointed leaves, the lower ones made up of three large leaflets. It grows as high as treeline in the mountains of all of the western states, blooming early in the summer while north-facing slopes are still snow covered. The small, sometimes pink-tinged flowers bloom centripetally, as do those in the vervain family (Verbenaceae) explaining another common name, “mountain verbena.”

Northern valerian, Valeriana dioica L. var. sylvatica (Richardson) S. Watson (right). The northern, or marsh, valerian, is a low, stout-stemmed plant usually found in moist mountain meadows to subalpine elevations. The species name, dioica, from the Greek, means “two houses,” signifying that there are both male and female plants. Because this is a circumboreal species, our plant is classified as var. sylvatica, to distinguish it from the slightly different Eurasian variety, var. dioica.

Home | Next | Previous | Index | Purchase book