Is Edible Valerian (Valeriana edulis) edible or not? Valerian is also called Tobacco Root. According to the Montana Plant Life website, some Native Americans cooked the root for two days before eating it. The same site notes, “It has a very strong and peculiar taste that is offensive to some people but agreeable to others.”
Minnesota Wildflowers compares early European accounts of the carrot-like taproot to the usual discussion on lutefisk—meaning you either like it or hate it. I doubt anyone is currently baking valerian root in the ground for days to avoid hunger, but do note that it is poisonous raw.
The only location I have found edible Valerian is in the native prairie in Wilkinson Pioneer Park in Rock Falls (Cerro Gordo County). In north Iowa and at Wilkinson Park, this plant is one of the first taller fluorescence to appear in the spring. While short and almost hidden yellow star and blue-eyed grasses are blooming close to the ground, edible Valerian pop up to one to four feet above early spring prairie flowers.
In this fun photo, I was surprised to find one morel mushroom in the middle of the prairie, next to this smaller Valerian plant.
A mature edible Valerian has a lovely bouquet of basal leaves (near the base of the stem).
The long, narrow leaves grow between three to twelve inches long and less than an inch wide. Tiny white hairs on the leaf’s edge create a silvery appearance along the edge.
Each plant has multiple erect stems from the base.
The stems branch at the top and hold many tight panicle clusters of flowers.
The flowers are small and appear bunched together with no rhyme or reason. Minnesota Wildflowers put it like this:
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.
At Wilkinson Park, there are about a dozen smaller plants like this one.
Edible Valerian can grow larger, almost the size of a small bush.
Here’s my favorite prairie companion (Prairie Dog) enjoying Valerian with me.
Edible Valerian does not stand out in the prairie. Even with its height, and the tendency to bloom before taller plants take over, it is easy to overlook.
Circling back to is it edible? It’s a good thing other prairie plants don’t find it as offensive as some people do. The Southwest Colorado Wildflowers website writes, “Natives served these roots to John Charles Fremont and his party of western explorers and although the root was ‘agreeable’ to some, to others it was so offensive that they refused to be in the same lodge with it.”