Valeriana edulis (Edible Valerian)

Plant Info
Also known as: Tobacco Root
Genus:Valeriana
Family:Valerianaceae (Valerian)
Life cycle:perennial
Origin:native
Status:
  • State Threatened
Habitat:sun; calcareous fens, wet meadows, moist prairie
Bloom season:May - June
Plant height:1 to 4 feet
Wetland Indicator Status:GP: FAC MW: FACW NCNE: FACW
MN county distribution (click map to enlarge):Minnesota county distribution map
National distribution (click map to enlarge):National distribution map

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Detailed Information

Flower: Flower shape: 5-petals Cluster type: panicle

[photo of flowers] Flowers are borne on a rather tall, vertical panicle with widely spaced branches along its length. The panicle's clusters are highly irregular in shape, compact at first, spreading out over time. This species is “polygamo-dioecious” meaning it has flowers with both female and male parts (perfect flowers), or just male (staminate flowers) or just female (pistallate flowers) - all on the same plant. Individual flowers are creamy white with 5 fused petals, the lobes lance oval, spreading at first then curling back tightly. Stamens are in 3s and pistils are 3-parted at the tip. Perfect and staminate flowers are up to 1/8 inch in size but pistallate flowers are inconspicuous (less than 1 mm). The sepals are inconspicuous at flowering, curled up tightly and barely developed behind the fused petal tube.

Leaves and stems: Leaf attachment: basal Leaf attachment: opposite Leaf type: lobed Leaf type: simple

[photo of basal leaves] Leaves are mostly basal, occasionally a few are 3-lobed but most are narrowly spatula shaped, 3 to 12 inches long and less than an inch wide with nearly parallel veins, and on a short, winged stalk.

[photo of stem leaves] Edges are smooth except for a band of dense, short, white hairs, giving them a silvery edge. Upper stem leaves are few, opposite, shorter than the basal leaves, with 3 to 9 irregular, finger-like pinnate lobes. Stems are multiple from base, erect, mostly smooth but for a few scattered hairs, often in rows.

Fruit: Fruit type: seed with plume

[photo of fruit] After pollination when the flower drops away and the seed matures, the sepals expand and unfurl with 9 to 12 feathery plumes that carry the seed on the winds. Fruit is oblong-elliptic, 1/8 inch or more long, flattened on two sides, the umbrella-like sepals arrayed at the top.

Notes:

Before the mass destruction of its habitat by agriculture, Edible Valerian was apparently common and widespread. Beyond moist prairie sites it also requires a fairly high soil pH (calcareous) which limits its remaining habitat options further. According to the DNR, it was listed as a Threatened species in Minnesota in 1984 primarily due to habitat loss. There are 2 recognized varieties in North America: var. edulis is a western species, lacking the fringe of hairs on the leaves, and var. ciliata, present in Minnesota and the upper midwest and into Canada.

Regarding its edibility as the common name implies, it was the large carrot-like taproot that was consumed. Early European accounts remind me of a discussion on lutefisk - there appears to be little middle ground. In the 1840s explorer John Fremont noted that native Americans would bake it in the ground for several days and that "it had a very strong and remarkably peculiar taste and odor." Here and there are accounts of it being somewhat agreeable to some and others fleeing its presence - just like lutefisk! Perhaps it just needed more butter...

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More photos

Photos courtesy Peter M. Dziuk taken in Dakota and Olmsted counties.

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