Sunday, June 21, 2009
Red Valerian: Fragrant or Stinky?
This plant (centhrantus rubra) blooms all over my neighborhood and I like its common name: Jupiter's Beard. I hoped there was some mythological association between the plant and Jupiter, but after checking extensive Googling and checking my primary source for mythology of plants on the web, Paghat, I couldn't find any. I suspect the name comes from the belief that Jupiter's beard was red.
I haven't paid much attention to it because it doesn't do much, except spring up exuberantly as early as April and continue blooming far into November. The bees love it but it's not edible, medicinal or fragrant.
Or so I thought until last month when I was walking by a large patch in bloom and I smelled a most heavenly odor. Knowing that I sometimes assume flowers don't have fragrance when they do (I was totally shocked by my first fragrant rhododendron), I bent down and inhaled. Quite a nice fragrance--it reminded me a bit of grape jelly.
But on a later walk, when I decided to validate my findings, I couldn't discern any scent at all. I wondered if this was one of those flowers that is fragrant only before it's pollinated and then loses its scent.
And during a quick search of the web today, before posting this entry, I found various descriptions of its smell, all contradictory. There are many entries which claim its fragrant, without describing the fragrance. One post said it smelled like vanilla. Another just said it smelled "divine." That was it for the positive associations.
Plants for the Future has a reference to it as smelling like perspiration. One gardener at Dave's garden complained that the cut flowers smelled like "cat pee." Web sites describing the flowers blooming wild in England said the smell was "doggy," as in "stale dog dung" or "catty."
I know that true valerian (the one that does have herbal properties) has such an unpleasant odor that early herbalists, Discorides and Galen, named it Phu. At least that's what Mrs. Grieves reports in her herbal. And the two valerians are in the same family.
What's going on? What does red valerian really smell like? I'm going out to smell some right now. If you have some in your neighborhood, please check it out and let me know what you think?
The photo came from the Washington State University site.