Valerian is a small genus of flowers with a long tradition of herbal medical usage. The name of the herb is derived from the personal name Valeria and the Latin verb valere (to be strong, healthy).
Used since at least the times of ancient Greece and Rome, sixteenth-century Anabaptists (a decidedly dodgy bunch) prescribed valerian tea for the sick.
Indeed, Hippocrates described its properties, and Galen recommended it to cure insomnia.
A medicine used across Europe, in medieval Sweden it was placed in the groom’s wedding garments to ward off ‘envious elves’.
Along with treating insomnia and other sleep disorders, valerian addresses anxiety and gastrointestinal pain caused by irritable bowel syndrome.
Other uses include reducing nervous tension, excitability, stress, intestinal ‘colic’ or cramps, and as a muscle relaxant.
Not a great recommendation, but apparently Hitler was fond of this drug.
Interestingly, Derbyshire was a traditional centre for the harvesting of valerian for herbal medical use.
The plant concerned would be the common valerian or valeriana officinalis, found in wet woods, marshes and today, in gardens too.
There is another species, the marsh valerian (valeriana dioica), which is a rare species of marsh and bog and, in a different genus, the red valerian (centranthus ruber).
This last plant is a native of the Mediterranean, introduced to Britain before the 1600s. By the late 1700s, it was noted naturalising on old walls, cliffs, and rock outcrops in Devon and Cornwall.
The flowers are stunning and range from the most common, which is bright red, to white.
The blooms are fragrant but nowhere near as delightful as the common valerian, which has a heavy, heady fragrance.
Habitats are different too, and the red valerian thrives on exposed, dry walls and rocky areas.
I first found this species naturalised in Sheffield in the Shire Brook Valley in the 1980s. Established from garden throw-outs, it looked very exotic. It was still not so common here even as a garden flower, but today it is very popular in cultivation.
From gardens across the region, it has made the break and is spreading everywhere in suitable places.
Escape is through people throwing garden waste into woods and hedgerows, and increasingly from the prolific wind-blown seeds.
This year seems particularly good and the flowers are brightening up many places on roadsides and wastelands, on walls and other exposed, dry spots. The prolific flowers in sunny locations are great for insects such as butterflies, bumblebees, hoverflies and moths.
Hawk moths, in particular, seem to relish the species and both humming bird and bee hawk have visited in my garden.
n Sightings: With the good weather, it is a busy time of year for the region’s birdlife.
My spies in Holmesfield tell me of a successful pair of barn owls, even giving views of owls plus prey like mice and voles, in local gardens!
Let me know if you have seen them.
In my own garden at Norton, I had glorious views of adult and juvenile chiffchaffs with the parent birds feeding the youngsters.
Elsewhere, such as at Longshaw, listen for great spotted woodpeckers feeding noisy young at nesting holes. Around lowland wetlands expect good numbers of breeding waterfowl and young, for example with great crested grebe, gadwall and pochard at Catcliffe Flash.
Upland sites like Morehall Reservoir have anxious pairs of common sandpipers with juveniles close by.
n Professor Ian D. Rotherham, researcher, writer and broadcaster on wildlife and environmental issues, is contactable on firstname.lastname@example.org; follow ‘Ian’s Walk on the Wildside’, www.ukeconet.org for more information.