Mysterious Valerian – Smelly Socks and Sleep Aid

By Kathleen Hale, Member, The Herb Society of America

valeriana-officinalis-848738_1920What smells like a teenage boy’s unwashed socks, is a legendary medicinal plant since the time of the Greeks, and has appeared prominently in the 1974 film version of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express?


I remember seeing John Gielgud, as the dastardly Ratchett’s gentleman’s gentleman, carefully introducing measured valerian drops into a glass of water, rich claret color swirling.  The soon-to-be late Mr. Ratchett was not done in by his usual sleeping draught.  It was merely the vehicle for the stronger sedative which would allow the murderer to…well, no spoilers.  The point is that valerian is a sleep aid.

By the way, the sleeping potion is only described by Christie herself as coming from a vial marked, “The sleeping draught to be taken at bedtime.”

While this stuff stinks, cats, apparently, find the aroma of Valerian officinalis a close second to catnip.  The German Benedictine abbess Hildegard of Bingen actually combines catnip and valerian in a paste — with water, flour and lard — to be ingested frequently for purposes of curing pleurisy or gout. Remember the ripe sock odor? Imagine it combined with catnip. Now think about ingesting this.

img_0481.jpgModern preparations of valerian, alone or in combination with other herbs like hops, are available over the counter as a sleep aid.

Valerian, as a plant, is useful in wet areas and is happy in sun, but tolerates partial shade.  It produces masses of white or pink flowers on tall plants, 4 or 5 feet high, from June through September.  Pollinators are drawn to the flowers, and valerian will be visited by honey bees, bumblebees, native bees, flies, beetles and some butterflies.

The name “valerian” comes from the Latin, meaning hardy or flourishing, and it can be invasive in the cooler regions of the northern United States and Canada.

Naming can be confusing. One of valerian’s common names is “garden heliotrope,” although it is not a heliotrope.  A popular plant known as “red valerian” (Centranthus ruber) — also called spur valerian, kiss-me-quick, Fox’s brush, Devil’s beard and Jupiter’s beard — is not true valerian. Another species of the genus is Indian valerian (Valerian wallichii), known in both Hindi and Sanskrit as tagar.It is part of the Ayurvedic tradition, and employed to enhance sleep in India, China and Nepal.

By the way, Agatha Christie mentioned valerian specifically in 1942 in another of her novels, Five Little Pigs, published in the Unites States as Murder in Retrospect.  Once more, valerian finds itself in close proximity to murder, without being the cause of death.  The suspect sneaks valerian from the private laboratory of an enthusiastic amateur chemist as part of a practical joke. Alas …  not another spoiler … but valerian is innocent.  It just tends to be in the wrong place, at the wrong time, a delicate (if smelly) flower among less savory characters.

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People, Plants & Pollinators: The Herbal Connection

People, Plants & Pollinators: The Herbal Connection

by Debbie Boutelier, Past President of Herb Society of America & GreenBridgesTM Chair

PolliinatorsAs people we connect with other people, places and things every day. We have powerful relationship connections that we don’t even think about. But, these essential connections nurture our emotional and physical health. We need our connections.

Nature is an important connection we may not think about  – the sun coming up in the morning, the birds singing as you walk to work, the foods you eat, the mosquito buzzing around your head, the flowers that smell so nice in your yard, and so on. These connections, especially among people, plants and pollinators are crucial to our very existence. We must nurture them so they – and we — will flourish.

Until recently many people considered insects to be pests. But they are so much more: they are pollinators and without one-third of the world’s crop production would disappear.  Bees and butterflies are the most commonly known pollinators but wasps, flies, moths, ants, beetles, hummingbirds and other birds and even bats are responsible for pollinating plants. Every time one of these creatures visits a flower to gather nectar, they also gather pollen which they move from plant to plant as they forage. Plants and pollinators need each other.pollinator 2


People need the plant-pollinator connection for food. And so, people must nurture plants and pollinators to perpetuate the cycle and help all members flourish. There are easy things each person can do to support this successful connection.

  • Cultivate a native plant. The most widely accepted native plant definition classifies native plants as species growing in the United States before European settlement. HSA’s unique perspective is herbs, so we advocate incorporating native herbs in your gardens.  Native herbs offer a multitude of uses and advantages. In addition to the nectar, many herbs also serve as a host plant to provide food for insect larva. Native herb plants come in all sizes: trees, shrubs, garden plants and even groundcovers. An abundant and diverse array of flowering plants is the most important element of a quality pollinator habitat. Native plants are considered the best choice because of their abundance of nectar and pollen in addition to being low-maintenance, generally pest-free, drought-tolerant, erosion-control, sources of food and shelter for wildlife and naturally beautiful.
  • Shady Nook (2)Choose plants that will bloom over a long period. Have some plants that bloom early, some mid-season and some late season to provide pollinators with a continuous food supply. Don’t be in a hurry to clean up your garden in the fall. Leave the seed heads to provide food over the winter.
  • Provide watering stations. Fill a shallow container with fresh water for the birds and other pollinators year round.
  • Shrink the size of your lawn. Plant native trees and shrubs in large beds to support pollinators and to reduce the workload of maintaining a large lawn.
  • Reduce the chemical pesticides and herbicides used on your yard or consider going organic. Not only will the pollinators benefit, but so will the children and pets. A healthy garden with the appropriate plant species and an abundance of pollinators will support natural beneficial insects—reducing the need for pest control.
  • GreenBridgesLogo_LoConsider getting your yard certified as a GreenBridgesTM garden. The Herb Society of America offers our GreenBridgesTM program to create opportunities for the safe passage of plants and pollinators. Visit the website at for more information and an application. Once your garden is certified as a GreenBridgesTM garden, you will receive a plaque for your garden, a certificate, newsletters with information about native herbs, and have access to a member’s only Facebook page.

Together we can create a network of GreenBridgesTM gardens across the country that will nurture the people, plant and pollinator connections that we strive to protect. From the small garden of containers on a patio to the large home garden, every garden is important in the network and can offer respite, food and water to the pollinators and plants.

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Contest: Show Us Your Herb Garden

By Paris Wolfe, Blogmaster, The Herb Society of America

HERB SOCIETY BUILDING (2) - CopyOne of my favorite seasonal pastimes is visiting gardens.  I recently visited the Holden Arboretum to peruse pollinator gardens. I love the Western Reserve Herb Society gardens at the Cleveland Botanical Garden. I make excuses to visit The Herb Society of America Headquarters to admire the lush displays of herbs spread throughout the property.  And, I walk around friends’ yards admiring their botanical handiwork.

What can I doNow I want to see what you’re doing. Send pictures of your herbal planting efforts – dedicated beds, mixtures with flowers and veggies, container collections – to  The names of all gardeners will be placed into a hat. One name will be drawn to win a copy of the book What Can I Do With My Herbs by Judy Barrett. Deadline for entries is June 30.

We will also be sharing pictures – and ideas – in future blog posts.

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Steep Tea Revv’s Blends with Benefits

By Paris Wolfe, Blogmaster, The Herb Society of America

About the bus copy.jpgYou know that gap year between high school and university that judgy people frown upon? Sometimes it turns out well. Consider Joe Howard. In 2011, the 18-year old Joe, who lacked business experience, decided to become a tea entrepreneur. So he bought a Richard Branson business book and rented a vacant storefront in Bakewell, Derbyshire, England.

Like many tea entrepreneurs Joe thought he could sell proper tea and exciting blends better than others. With the creation of Tea Revv he aimed to make loose leaf tea understandable, easy to try, and easy to buy. Tea Revv takes the mystery out of tea and makes it more accessible. Buyers aren’t required to brew English Breakfast at 97.5 degrees for 240 seconds precisely.  They are required to enjoy tea.


Today he offers traditional and irreverent blends that range from Oriental Beauty to Cookie Dough black tea to Watermelon Oolong. The majority of the 100 blends combine Camellia sinensis with spices, herbs, nuts, fruits and flavors.

“We look for exciting and interesting ingredients that complement each other well,” says Joe. “For example the Watermelon Oolong is a light delicate oolong, blended with juicy watermelon flavors and papaya pieces to give an interesting refreshing brew.”

For those wanting to create their own blends Joe says, “Keep it simple. Choose a base tea or herb that you like. You can then add a smaller amount of another herb/tea or some fruits, flowers, or spices. Try to pick ingredients which complement each other but it’s really up to you. Have fun, experiment and find what you like the best. “

BlendsTea Revv’s most unusual and interesting tea – Lil Tulsi – reflects the world’s interest in Holy Basil. But Joe’s favorite is Golden Turmeric. “This has green tea, black tea, turmeric and ginger pieces. It’s a complex blend with a tingle of ginger which looks and tastes amazing.”

To be playful Tea Revv has created a selection of blends called “Blends with Benefits” which was launched on Kickstarter and is now 128% funded. And, they are currently working on winter blends for the launch of a tea advent calendar in early September.

Teas are available online and shipped throughout the world.

Farm Market Standout: Honey Hollow Herbs

Farm Market Standout: Honey Hollow Herbs

By Paris Wolfe, Blogmaster, The Herb Society of America

HSA blogOne of the great things about the farmers markets is meeting people behind the product. At a market near my home I recently met growers HSA members Meghan and Rees Davis of Honey Hollow Herbs in Ashtabula, Ohio. Like many market growers they’re incredible resources for home gardeners. They know their products – both common and less common herbs. They keep learning and experimenting with new herbs. And, they share knowledge.

Pick up winter savory and Rees pronounces the lesser- known perennial his favorite herb. The long-lived hardy plant can be used fresh or dried, in soups, stews and root vegetable dishes. And it loves beans.

20180518_124826.jpgAsk Meghan her favorite and she protests it’s like picking a favorite child. Meghan’s choice? Basil, for its breadth of variety. In fact, the Davises are growing Pesto Perpetuo Basil, a tender perennial basil that’s variegated and doesn’t flower. The two-tone leaves add interest and the non-flowering characteristic makes it more productive.

Favorite herb isn’t the same as only herb, though. If they could grow just one herb Rees would choose basil for pesto. Meghan would choose any lemon herb – lemon verbena, lemon thyme, lemon basil – to add citrus flavor to her culinary efforts.

But limitations aren’t part of the herb farm formula.  This year the duo is growing more than 70 herb varieties. They only take the most popular to market, but sell more on their farm. Most are culinary inspired, but some are native pollinator plants such as milkweed, wild bergamot and mountain mint. (For more information on the importance of pollinator plants, check this out Grow Herbs, Save the World)

20180518_130139Among their experimental herbs in 2018 are ‘Geisha’ Garlic Chives and ‘Cardinal’ Basil. ‘Geisha’ garlic chives have slightly larger, flatter leaves than regular garlic chives.  Meanwhile, ‘Cardinal’ basil has dark red flowers and burgundy stems.

While Honey Hollow Herbs officially started in 2005, the Davises have been growing herbs for 25 years and gardening since they married in 1982. Gardening was retirement dream while they were working corporate jobs in product management for AT&T and computer project management at IBM, both in New Jersey. Natives of Kirtland and Ashtabula, they moved back to Northeast Ohio in 2004.

Over the years they built their knowledge as members of the Herb Society of America, by studying garden design at the New York Botanical Garden and through reading. Their must-have herb book is The Encyclopedia of Herbs:  A Comprehensive Reference to Herbs of Flavor and Fragrance, By Art Tucker and Thomas DeBaggio. And, their favorite herb author is Jo Ann Gardner.


Giving one piece of advice the couple would say:  “Don’t segregate your herbs. Incorporate them with flowers and vegetables and enjoy!”


Powerful Herbal Love Magic in Western Literature

Powerful Herbal Love Magic in Western Literature

By Kathleen Hale, Member, Western Reserve Herb Society Unit

IMG_0473You just might possess one of the most powerful, most legendary sources of love magic in western literature.  And, if you don’t, you can pick it up cheaply at the local garden center or grocer.  Before spending, check the cracks in your sidewalk.  It loves to grow there.

This giant of herbal lore is the lowly (it’s very small) tri-color viola, also called Wild Pansy, Love in Idleness, Love Lies Bleeding, Heart’s Ease, Johnny Jump Up and Kiss Me, Tickle My Fancy and Come Cuddle Me. It is similar to, but not the same as viola odorata, or violets, and is the ancestor of modern pansies. It was introduced to North America from Europe and spreads prolifically, which is why you can often find volunteers somewhere in your garden if you’ve grown it previously. Unsurprisingly, given its common names listed above, in the language of flowers the blossoms mean “thoughts of love.”

Bees like these early bloomers when flowers for pollinators can be scarce. And people can eat them, if they haven’t been sprayed with gardening chemicals. They make a delightful garnish or salad addition.

In legend, the blooms were once pure white, but Eros (Cupid) misfired one of his darts of love, and the divine aphrodisiac potion with which those darts were tipped splattered on the flowers.  The now- colorful petals were infused with the power of love.

IMG_0471Shakespeare, who was never averse to flattering his patrons, identifies this episode as being when Eros zeroed in on Queen Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen. The arrow missed its mark, the viola gained its color and its potency, and this “fair vestal, enthroned by the west…passed on, in maiden meditation fancy free.” – Midsummer’s Night Dream, Act II, scene I.  Oberon noticed the opportunity, and made use of the potion, with the assistance of the always helpful Puck, to generally mess things up.

In Twelfth Night, one of Shakespeare’s most endearing comic heroines, herself named “Viola,” shook things up romantically.

The Urban Dictionary claims that any person named Viola is the “best friend in the world.”  And what is a best friend, if not someone who will cheerfully flower in the cracks in the sidewalk?