Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..
Dear Readers, Red Valerian is one of those plants that seems to be cropping up all over the place. In the photo above, I found it growing on the banks of one of the streams in Coldfall Wood, here in north London.The photos below are from my parents’ village of Milborne St Andrew in Dorset, where the pink form proliferates over the more usual red-flowered type. If you are lucky (and I was not this time) you can also see a white-flowered form.
Now, the first thing to say is that this is not the plant that is used to make all manner of herbal sedatives – that is Common Valerian (Valeriana officinalis), which I will hopefully find at some point and will blog about separately. Red Valerian is in the same family, but is a naturalised plant, whose native habitat is the Mediterranean. It was first recorded in the UK in 1593, and was reported in the wild for the first time in 1763. It has a tolerance for very alkaline conditions, and is hence sometimes seen growing in the mortar in old walls, both here and in France and Italy.
Close up, you can see that the head is made up of hundreds of tiny 5-petalled flowers. As the year goes on, these are replaced by the fluffy seeds which will set up home with the slightest encouragement. Red Valerian has a reputation for being invasive, but is easily pulled up if it occurs somewhere that it is not wanted. It is loved by bees and butterflies, and by one very special visitor in particular, which seems to prefer this plant above all others.On at least three occasions, people that I know in the UK have told me that they have seen a hummingbird in their garden. I have to tell them that we don’t actually have hummingbirds in the Old World, but what they have seen is no less remarkable – it’s a Hummingbird Hawk Moth, which, with its large size, thrumming wings and zig-zag flight pattern is easily mistaken for a small bird. I have always been a little jealous because in all my wanderings I have never seen a Hummingbird Hawk Moth for myself. Then, a few weeks ago, I finally saw one feeding on Red Valerian in my parents’ garden. I heard the moth before I saw it, a low-pitched buzzing like a giant bee, and just had time to see the blur of copper wings, and to take in the furry body and the long, long tongue before the moth moved on, at speed. Its caterpillar is no less remarkable, and these moths have been seen laying their eggs on Red Valerian as well as feeding on it, so if you see a patch of the plant, have a good look! You can tell a Hummingbird Hawk Moth caterpillar by the distinctive blue and orange spine at the back end.
Local names for Red Valerian have always had a certain boozy, maritime quality – it’s known as Kiss-me-quick, Drunkards and Betsy in various parts of the country. Is it because, when it hangs down from the walls that are its favoured habitat, it sways tipsily in the breeze? I have no idea, but it does lend a certain Mediterranean ambiance to the places that it grows. I half expect the walls of the half-bricked houses to become white-washed, and to smell the sea.
There are rumours that Red Valerian can be eaten – the Plant Lives website describes how the leaves have been used in salads ‘in spite of their catty smell’, and that apparently the root can be eaten as well. Even more enticingly, it says that the seeds of Red Valerian have been used for ’embalming the dead’, though this may be because of a confusion with a similar plant called Spikenard, or False Valerian root, which was used by the Egyptians during mummification. It has no medicinal properties that anyone has discovered so far.
Something that intrigues me about Red Valerian is that it is often also known as Jupiter’s Beard. I had never thought of Jupiter, king of the gods, as being a red-head, but I’m sure there is absolutely no reason why this shouldn’t be the case. The plant is also known as Devil’s Beard – red-headed people have, unfortunately, been associated with the devil for a long time, which just goes to show how stupid prejudice can be. But whatever it’s called, this is a long-flowering, insect-friendly plant which brightens up any backyard, wall or parking lot. It’s a great example of a ‘weed’ with charm.