In the Celtic tradition, St. Brigid’s day – the second of February – marks the beginning of spring.
My own climate must be similar, because this is the time of year when we start hearing the peeper frogs, and, despite the rain, see some of the signs of spring. Like this planting of violets and valerian, for instance.
Lightly mulched by the black oak leaves that are so common around here, they are beginning to show signs of life. I love how the valerian (Valeriana officinalis) takes on a bronze tinge with its early foliage.
Besides being among the first plants to show signs of life, valerian and violets have something else in common: they’re both medicinal. Actually, a lot of ornamental plants started out as medicinal, a sort of hangover from the time when a garden was a pharmacy, larder, and household supply source.
It’s pretty obvious that valerian is medicinal; the “officinalis” in its Latin name means a plant that was sold in European apothecary shops, a plant that has medicinal value. Some of valerian’s medicinal qualities are pretty commonly known. Valerian root (that’s the medicinal part) is a muscle relaxant that can help reduce aches and pains and ease the way to sleep. It can also just calm you down when you’re too nervy. Maybe that calming effect is also why valerian has been touted as an aphrodisiac. In some parts of England, these powers of valerian were recognized in another way: valerian was hung in the house to invite peace and harmony, and to prevent bickering between marriage partners. Valerian has also been used for palpitations of the heart and epilepsy.
Valerian root is indeed useful stuff, but just a caution to those who have not tried it: any preparations involving roots must be simmered, and simmering valerian smells a little bit like dirty socks or a very hairy dog coming in after rolling in something dead. Fortunately, it doesn’t taste the way it smells, but preparing it can stink up a house. A lot of people prefer capsules. If you buy valerian root this way, be sure you get a good brand; bad processing and storage mean very low quality, which means few effects for you.
Valerian’s also a great garden plant, especially for those of us who have a lot of shade. It grows well with foxglove, which shares its taste for shade, rich soil, and water. The pink-tinged flower heads smell like vanilla heaven, which endears it to me.
Violets (Viola odorata), while well-known as a garden plant, are not well-known as medicinal these days. Yet they have not lost the properties that made them valuable to Europeans in ancient times. I could write pages and pages on their magical and medicinal uses. (For those of you who think the two are at odds with each other, I’ll point out that magic and medicine come from the same root. I’ll further point out that people still put a lot of magical faith in the medicine of our times; our touching belief that doctors know everything, and our fascination with medical TV shows, are only two example of this.)
In ancient Greece, violets were used to embellish homes and temples, since they were believed to calm anger. This belief may be related to violet’s connection to the moon goddess. Perhaps it was that same connection that made the ancient Romans decorate their parties with violets to prevent drunkenness (maybe it was just quarrelsome drunkenness they were trying to alleviate?)
In more modern times, Euell Gibbons had violet leaves analyzed for their vitamin content. They are very high in vitamin C, and also in vitamin A (could repairing vitamin deficiency have something to do with their anger- and drunkenness-averting qualities?). Gibbons used to cook them up as spring greens; I tend to use them as a staple of what I call “garden tea”, tea made out of whatever plants are showing enough leaf for me to take some.
The leaves have also been used in ointments for swellings and inflammations, and the flowers used to be made into violet syrup, which was said to cure ague, epilepsy, pleurisy, quinsy, jaundice, consumption, insomnia, and inflammation of the eyes.
It might or might not do any of those things. But when I see the first violets bloom, it certainly does my eyes good.
Donald Law, Concise Encyclopedia of Herbs, St. Martin, 1976
Richard Alan Miller, The Magical and Ritual Use of Perfumes, Destiny Books, 1990
Euell Gibbons, Stalking the Healthful Herbs, David McKay Co. Inc., 1966