Valerian is a plant long utilised by herbalists in the Gàidhealtachd and beyond.
I have written previously in this blog about how the meadowsweet is known in Gaelic tradition as a plant that once soothed the wild temper of the hero Cuchullin, famous for his meanderings, battling and philandering on the Isle of Skye. It is Crios Chù Chulainn ‘Cuchullin’s belt’. Another attractive native plant of similar stature that is often seen growing in the same vicinity to meadowsweet – damp and unkempt meadows or roadside verges – is also known for its ability to soothe an upset disposition in humans. It is Carthan Curaidh [pron. ‘kar-an KOO-ree’], a name which perhaps best translates as ‘warrior’s friendship’. Carthan is the root of the oft used carthannas, meaning ‘charity’ (a word to which it is a cognate). A bùth-charthannais is a ‘charity shop’ and carthannach means ‘charitable, kind’. Curaidh is an old word, still used and understood in the Scottish Gaelic community, which means ‘warrior, champion, hero’.
The Gaelic name is likely to reflect the understanding, long-established in traditions of European herbalism, that the juice of the roots could be employed to calm people who were suffering angst or worry – as might be the case with a warrior preparing for, or recovering from, conflict. Valerian, as it is known in English (Valeriana officinalis being the scientific name for the wild species), was used to treat shell-shocked soldiers and victims of Zeppelin bombings in World War I. The plant has also been used to promote sleep, lower blood pressure and treat epilepsy, although its efficacy in all of these is questioned.
An account in Flora Celtica tells of how it was administered, in a series of clinical experiments in the 18th century, to counteract the side-effects of (poisonous) hemlock which was being employed in a radical treatment for cancer. Another account in the same publication is of advice given to a woman on the Isle of Grimsay in the Western Isles to boil some valerian roots and ‘make a sort of drink of it’ as a pick-me-up. The recipient of the advice neglected to take it so could not vouch for its efficacy. Like many herbal remedies, such treatments should not be self-administered and should only be considered after receiving professional advice.
If you do decide to dig up some roots (doing so only where the plant grows in abundance), be careful if you have a pet cat. Felines absolutely love the smell of the roots (and other parts of the plant) in contrast to many humans who find it objectionable. You will have to store the plant in a pussy-proof location or you will be disturbed by energetic feline scratchings!
An alternative Gaelic name for valerian is Lus nan Trì Bilean ‘the plant of the three leaves’ which refers to the uppermost group of leaves found immediately below the attractive pink-white flower-heads. This has led to confusion with another plant, abundant in Highland lochans, called trì-bhileach ‘bogbean’ (which has leaves in groups of three). References to the sour taste of the juice of the trì-bhileach have been interpreted, perhaps erroneously, as being a commentary on valerian rather than bogbean.
The origin of the name Valerian is also interesting. It appears to derive from the Latin verb valere ‘to be strong and healthy’ (like a warrior or hero), which also gives the personal names Valeria and Valerius. The German pharmacologist Valerius Cordus (1515-1544) was one of the most celebrated herbalists in European history. Valere also provided the name – misleading or not, depending on your view – for a new psychotrophic drug developed in the 1960s, whose active ingredient is diazepam – Valium.
This blog was written by Inverness-based writer, broadcaster and storyteller Roddy (Ruairidh) Maclean, whose work highlights the connections between the Gaelic language and Scotland’s environment.