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.


Anonymous said...

I know "Jupiter's Beard" from living elsewhere, but have none here to go out and check the scent. However, is it possible that it's one of those plants that releases more scent at some times of days than others? (Jasmine, that releases fragrance at night to attract moth pollinators, comes to mind.)

This is my first look at your website. "Slow Time" was in the dorm at Sylvia Beach Hotel, where I just had a supremely restorative stay, and I read/did the first two chapters. I was tempted to borrow it, but decided it would be mean to deprive anyone else the opportunity to read it, so I just ordered my own copy. Thanks for the wisdom!

Waverly said...

What a good idea. I hadn't thought about the time of day. I believe I first smelled it in the morning and then tried again in the evening. That might be the difference.

I'm so glad you let me know about finding my book at the Sylvia Beach Hotel. I had to admit when I left it there, on one of those shelves full of dusty, abandoned books, it felt a bit like leaving a child at the doorstep of a hospital. It's great to know it was so appreciated. And perhaps will be again since you were so generous in leaving it.

Chrysanthemum Cake said...

So glad that I stumbled upon your blog - Jupiter's Beard grows like a weed in our area. In fact when I told a friend that I had planted it in my garden, she said "isn't that like a weed." I love anything that puts out abundant flowers for months on end and grows like a weed. What could be better? The plants are only a few inches tall, but I can's wait for them to bloom so I can smell them. Thanks for the tip and the lovely blog.

Anonymous said...


Valerian's a funny one, I use it as a sleep aid. The descriptions that you've read of the scent are referring to the root which is where the active principle, the valerianic acid lies. Its this that smells, it is in the leaves and flowers to a lesser extent, but bizarrely the scent changes according to heat. When the plant is warmed (like in the sun) the smell of old socks that hangs around the roots becomes sweet.

When I make my tea out of it the dried root it self smells awful, but the hot tea is beautiful :)

Got to love the vagaries of nature!