There is red valerian in flower everywhere in Cardiff at the moment, growing from walls and flat roofs where it wasn’t planted. I always notice this stout plant, as it was one of the first I could put a name to. It grew on the lean-to shed outside the back door of the cottage where I lived as a child. I don’t remember who told me what to call it, whether it was my mother, whose dad was an amateur gardener, or my father, whose dad was a professional horticulturalist.
It has always struck me as one of those plants that is too big and pretty to be a native “weed”, while at the same time being too messy and ugly to be a proper garden specimen. It is in the same category as Buddleia, which I have written about elsewhere (here).
The Latin name for this plant is Centranthus ruber, presumably because the anthers are in the centre of the flowers and the flowers are red.
According to the Royal Horticultural Society, other names for red valerian include fox’s brush, German lilac, Jupiter’s beard, kiss-me-quick, pretty Betsy, Spanish valerian and spur valerian. I have heard it called none of these.
According to Wikipedia red valerian is a garden escapee, originally from the Mediterranean area. It’s now common in Britain, Ireland, France, Australia and the USA. I would like to know who brought it to Britain, but can’t find any reference to this. It was first named Centranthus ruber by Swiss botanist Augustin Pyramus de Candolle, who lived from 1178 to 1841.
There are several variations in colour in Centranthus ruber, but it is usually brick red or pink. About 10% of the plants have white flowers, but I haven’t seen any lately.
This valerian is a perennial, so it’s not surprising I see it in the same places every year…
Only recently did I realise that this red/pink/white valerian isn’t the same as the “valerian” mentioned in herbalism. That is Valeriana officinalis, which is from the same family, Caprifoliaceae, but otherwise not very closely related. It does look vaguely similar…
According to Wikipedia, Valeriana officinalis has been used medicinally against anxiety and insomnia and as a sedative. In medieval Sweden it was placed in the wedding clothes of a bridegroom to ward off the envy of the elves.
The name valerian probably comes from the Latin valere, meaning to be strong and healthy. That’s certainly something the red valerian I see on the streets can claim to be.
As I walked along one long suburban street yesterday I noticed for the first time that probably one house in every five had red valerian in its front garden or on the garden wall. In nearly all cases by accident, I would think. But once it flowers it seems a shame to pull out and throw away this free splash of welcome colour…