Getting to know Valerian

It’s basically fall now, and I feel like I’m just getting to know my garden. It does make sense, we’ve only been here a few months, and it takes at least one growing season, if not longer, to really get a feel for an outside plant. But today I was working in the backyard and for the first time I gave some real attention to one particular plant.

It’s actually truly the one plant in the yard that has been a rock star this whole summer. If I remember correctly it was already blooming when we went to England, and it’s been blooming the entire time since. All I’ve done is deadhead it a few times really quickly, and those pieces rebloomed. So of course I’ve barely paid it attention, because I’ve been too busy poring intently over leaves that have been savaged by spider mites or overwatered or covered in aphid galls. I sat down today to do some more deadheading because it had gotten fairly unwieldy, and all of a sudden I noticed one of the seedheads. I literally gasped out loud. They are delicate beautiful dandelion type seedheads, with the seed at the bottom and a wispy umbrella at the top.

And then I started looking at the flowers and was so charmed. Vibrant pink cymes, each little individual flower is so perfect and sweet with the pistil and stamen totally visible. I love cymes and other floral arrangements where multiple tiny flowers make up something big and showy.

So I was deadheading and taking pictures and boring the hell out of my husband when I was like, “Uh. What even is this plant?” And I realized I had no idea. I hadn’t even bothered to figure it out all summer, while it was over there looking awesome. I used iNaturalist and it was Valerian. What??? I thought I knew what Valerian looked like? I had some in a garden long ago? (I really like to grow plants that have useful properties, even if I never intend to ever use them that way. Like, I am not out here harvesting Valerian root and making tinctures. People are! And those people are rad, and I’m not being sarcastic! But I am not those people.) Turns out it’s one of those situations where the common name is misleading. This pretty plant is Centranthus ruber, whereas the medicinal Valerian is Valeriana officinalis.

They are in the same family (Caprifoliaceae) and have similar star-shaped flowers in cymes, but the Valeriana has white or pale pink flowers, not the intense pink of my Centranthus. And the leaves, flower stems, and growth habit of the plant are all quite different. Also the Valeriana is very fragrant. Some websites say the Centranthus is fragrant, but I haven’t found it to be noticeable.

Unfortunately once I started to pay attention I realized my new favorite perennial has self-seeded and is popping up in some places I don’t want it, like right in the middle of a tragic patch of thyme I’m not sure what to do with it. I can see it potentially becoming a bit too aggressive. Also, it REALLY flopped over , and I don’t mind it exactly, but the center is pretty bare and ratty looking, plus when I pulled it up to look under it today I was like, “Whoa there bindweed.”

So anyway. TMYK, which apparently stands for The More You Know, but I think since I know what it means the kidz probably stopped saying it five or so years ago. But on the subject of getting to know my garden, here is my favorite story that is super funny to me but maybe my sense of humor is lame and specific.

I think I’ve mentioned the pigsqueak in my crabgrass bed, which we overwatered and watered from above, resulting in some very yucky pigsqueak, which I guess I will try to rejuvenate in spring. But the other day I was like, “Wow! It’s sending up another flower stalk!” We’ve had a weird summer in Portland, and I’ve heard that some gardeners are experiencing kind of a second spring, with getting surprise second blooms and new growth on plants that are normally shutting down in the heat, and I do know that pigsqueak can bloom a second time under certain conditions. So I was pointing it out to the big kid when I look a closer look at it and realized…it is not a flower stalk. It’s a very robust Buckeye weed! There’s a Buckeye across the street and probably a squirrel buried it. I actually tried to pull this particular weed up once already and it was rooted in too hard and I meant to come back with a trowel but at the time I just sort of ripped it in half. Well, it did not give a shit and the foliage came back looking healthier than ever. So that’s my story.

I’m naming this Bergenia aesculifolia.