Some similarities to :
- Hemp-agrimony (Eupatorium cannabinum)
- and to Red Valerian (Centranthus ruber) but that is in a differing genera to Common Valerian, although still within the Valerianaceae family.
Could be confused with: Marsh Valerian (Valeriana dioica) but that has oval and un-toothed leaflets and lives in marshes, marshy grassland, fens and bogs and is dioecious, having separate male and female plants.
Uniquely identifiable characteristics.
Grows up to 2m high either on damp or dry grassland or very close to freshwater. May grow in woods. It is slightly variable in characteristics, with leaves either toothed or not, and broad or narrow, but this is mainly due to Common Valerian existing as 2 (or 3) sub-species. Some specimens have pure white flowers.
Three sub-species exist, and which may represent the high variability observed in Common Valerian:
Valeriana officinalis sub-species collina [middle stem leaves with 7-13 pairs of leaflets. Leaflets untoothed] Grows in dry ground
Valeriana officinalis sub-species sambucifolia [middle stem leaves with 2-6 leaflet pairs. Leaflets toothed] Grows in
Valeriana officinalis sub-species dunensis [on dune-slacks on the Sefton coast which resembles a shorter ssp. sambucifolia and is likely a variety of it rather than a sub-species].
Common Valerian has a smell similar to that of a vanilla-like perfume which is over-powering when it grows in profusion. Cats react in the same way to the smell of Common Valerian as they do to Catnip, but in the case of Common Valerian is due to a chemical called Actinidine (rather than to Nepetalactone which is not present in Common Valerian but is in Catnip and affects cats the same way, even though one is a lactone and the other a pyridine alkaloid!)
One of the 20 proteogenic amino acids, L-Valine, is named after Valerian.
ESSENCE OF VANILLA
The flowers of Common Valerian smell of vanilla, but do not necessarily contain vanillin, the principle odorous compound of vanilla pods. The root of the plant has also been used historically as a herbal sedative or hypnotic due to the presence of valepotriate compounds (see below).
VALERIC ACID and VELARATES
Common Valerian contains
valeric acid, (aka
N-pentanoic acid), which has an un-pleasant odour. In small quantities, valeric acid is used in some perfumes, and hence valerian used to be harvested for the perfume industry. Two laboratory synthesized esters of Valeric Acid, Ethyl Valerate and Pentyl Valerate, taste of apples and in the latter example also of pineapple, and are used as food additives. Valeric acid is claimed able to treat acne, although no peer reviewed trials have been done. Despite, or perhaps because Valerian grows near water, Valeric Acid is poisonous to aquatic life.
Isovaleric Acid (aka
3-Methylbutanoic Acid and
IsoPentanoic Acid) is a positional isomer of Valeric Acid is contained in the roots, which when dried smell of sweaty feet or pungent cheese. Indeed, the action of bacteria metabolising Leucine on sweaty feet produces IsoValeric Acid. There are also smaller amounts of
Myrtenyl Isovalerate, an ester of it, which smells much more pleasant and is used in perfumery. Compare with the parent Myrtenol.
Common Valerian also contains Valproic Acid (2-propyl valeric acid), which is similar to Valeric Acid but possesses an additional 3-carbon aliphatic chain. It too finds pharmacological uses: for treating bipolar disorder and as an anti-convulsant in treating migraine and epilepsy. It affects the neurotransmiter GABA and is used as a substitute for lithium salts in the treatment of manic-depression (bipolar disorder).
Valeproic Acid (aka
Valproate) may also find a use on the battlefield. Injured soldiers can go into shock after losing a lot of blood. Around 7 percent of our genes change their expression in response to loss of blood by the removal of 'epigenetic' acetylations of the genome. This deacetylation changes the way the genes work, resulting in the automatic raising of blood pressure, increasing the heart rate and conserving energy, which is called 'shock'. However, shock is dangerous if it persists for any length of time, and can lead to organ failure and death soon after. To try and prevent this shock response, histone deacetylase inhibitors (HDAC) can be administered which would prevent the removal of acetylations from the genome. Valproic Acid is one such promising HDAC, administration of which should save the injured from going into shock, and thus surviving long enough to reach hospital.
HDAC acts on DNA and makes it harder to switch genes on or off. HDAC inhibitors allow the genetic machinery to be switched back on again. In the brain the presence of HDAC after the initial early learning years stops the brain from re-wiring itself; brain plasticity is stopped. But HDAC inhibitors can re-awaken the brain plasticity (something normally un-desirable in an adult) and by this means it can treat bipolar disorder.
Actinidine is a pyridine alkaloid and iridoid alkaloid which is present in the roots of common Valerian, and also present in oil of valerian, a herbal extract of the plant. Actinidine is a pheromone for some insects and has a similar intoxicating effect on male cats as Nepetalactone which is present in
Catmint (aka Catnip).
Nepetalactone, not present in Common Valerian but present in
Catnip (Nepeta cataria) and to a lesser extent in Garden Catmint (Nepeta x faassenii), is a bicyclic terpenoid and iridoid (but not an alkaloid) that is chemically related to the
valepotriates. By smell alone it has a profound effect on 75% of cats; it drives them half crazy with excitement. The other 25% are quite indifferent to this odour, as are your Authors cats.
Common Valerian yields the iridoids classed as valepotriates (which, containing no nitrogen atoms are not alkaloids), pharmaceutical drugs used as sedatives. Amongst them is valtratum.
[Valium, or diazepam (a benzodiazepine), although similar in name as well as being a sedative, is totally synthetic, does not occur naturally and is quite un-related chemically to the valepotriates].
Common Valerian is one of very few vascular plants that are capable of converting the inorganic chloride ion into organic chlorine. Others are
Yellow Star-Thistle, Potato plants and many in the Pea Family of plants. Two chlorinated iridoids have been found in Common Valerian,