Sitka Valerian

Credit: Richard Hebda

The breathtaking subalpine meadows of our mountains lure hikers from around the world. The natural riot of blue, orange, yellow and white produces an enchanting scene that many a gardener yearns to recreate at home. Unfortunately, we know little about most of these spectacular plants, and it is likely that few could ever be brought into cultivation successfully. However, one native mountaineer, Sitka valerian (Valeriana sitchensis), can make an attractive, though little-used, subject for a moist sunny corner.

Few can forget these white heads perched atop tall, leafy masses that crowd meadow openings from mid to high elevations in our mountains. Sitka valerian grows from both stout spreading rhizomes (root-stems) and woody crowns. Fibrous roots extend from the mass of stem bases to explore the organic soil. Squarish leafy stems rise upwards from 30 to 120 centimetres above the ground. Many oppositely arranged compound leaves stick out from the stem, becoming progressively smaller toward the flower cluster. Each leaf consists of a long leaf stalk (petiole) and three to seven leaflets with large teeth along the margins. Of these, the largest leaflet is the one at the end of the stalk.

Numerous white to pale-pink flowers crowd into a cluster at the end of the stem. Each tiny bloom is only four to seven millimetres across, but the domed flower head reaches more than five centimetres across. The flower consists of a narrow tube that opens into five short petals. Out of its mouth protrude three long stamens surrounding a single pistil. To some folks, the leaves have an unpleasant odour, which is particularly sour after the first frost in fall. The flowers, on the other hand, emit a strong sweet smell, hence the alternate common name of mountain heliotrope. The scent is so strong that it may be overwhelming indoors. In the wild, Sitka valerian blooms as early as April and as late as August, depending upon elevation and latitude.

The native range of this species includes all of British Columbia except the rolling plains of the Peace River country. Its continental distribution stretches from Alaska and the Yukon south to California and eastward to Montana and Alberta. You can scarcely miss this beautiful plant in our mountains for it inhabits such a wide range of habitats, including subalpine swards, moist stream banks, edges of depressions, forests and especially avalanche tracks. Breathtaking masses of Sitka valerian and native lupines (Lupinus) clothe the high slopes of Vancouver Island’s mountains.

Sitka valerian has been known in gardens for many decades, as is evident by its inclusion in Hortus Third, the massive compendium of cultivated plants published by staff at Cornell University. Curiously, though, it is yet to be widely grown. Several European valerians, however, are well known; one of them, common valerian (Valeriana officinalis), is the source of the medicine called valerian.

Sitka valerian and its tall herbaceous European kin are widely recommended for the back of herbaceous borders. The plants can be grown from the plumed seed sown on moist peaty soil in the fall or spring. Spring sowing works well for European species. Plants can also be obtained from root divisions transplanted in the fall. The growing site should be rich in organic matter and relatively moist, but not soggy throughout the summer. Sites in full sun are recommended, but I have seen Sitka valerian growing in partial to nearly full shade among stands of coniferous trees and in small forest openings. As with many native British Columbia species, you may not see Sitka valerian in the garden centre, but you may be able to order it from specialist sources. The more people who inquire about it, the more likely Sitka valerian is to become widely available.

Thompson First Nations people knew Sitka valerian to be an important medicinal plant. They understood and recognized its moist habitat, were familiar with the strong odour of its leaves, and noted that deer liked to browse the plant. The medicine makers had relatively specific recipes for preparing Sitka valerian, boiling roots to make a medicine for colds and for tuberculosis. Roots and leaves were boiled together to make a medicine for stomach troubles, ulcers and flu. Chewed leaves were spit onto cuts and bruises. The roots and leaves were also sometimes dried and powdered and used to flavour tobacco.

Push the limits, experiment with this native beauty and bring some of our mountain splendour into your garden. This first step may start you on the road to trying other subalpine species. Who knows? Instead of merely visiting alpine gardens, we might become pioneers in the art of subalpine gardening.

The following plants are hardy to the zone number indicated: Valeriana sitchensis – zones 1-0, especially where protected by winter snow • Valeriana officinalis – zone 4

An expert on native plants, Richard Hebda is curator of Botany and Earth History at the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria.