You really could drift off, this time of year, if you’re not careful.

A sleepy stretch of summer settles in by July, partly out of sunlit haze and heat, partly out of the sheer endless day that slips so slowly into twilight, and partly from the small faces emerging on roadsides and in fields. The green grass that sprung us from winter, tassled in June, and then expired with spent inflorescences, generates wildflowers the way your sleeping mind generates dreams.

Buttercups, hawkweed and hop clover. Blue and lavender lupines like alien sentinels. Purple vetch, and crown. Tiny stitchwort blossoms on tendrils in tall grass, like little Milky Ways. Clusters of wild madder. Ox-eye daisies like scale-model cosmic wheels. Bushes of white sweet clover. Flat-topped yarrow and Queen Anne’s lace, like fieldside moons. The points and dabs of color are becalming even at a glance, and when you pause and look into the stillness, green, and flecks of yellow and white unfolding behind hayrolls, smaller and smaller; it’s almost hallucinatory.

Not quite, I guess. But just before the goldenrod stands up on the edge of that waking summer sleep, valerian comes up like beings in a dream. At a distance it kind of resembles Queen Anne’s lace. But its umbels of small, off-white or light pastel pink flowers extend from near the top of the stalk in an overall triangular shape. It has a rich, sweet scent.

Valeriana officinalis, officially, is an alien from Europe, after most likely escaping from gardens. Its special claim to medicinal fame is that its root can be dug up, dried, chopped and made into an unusually effective, and safe, sedative tea. Or at least, that’s the experience of naturalists like Tom Seymour, of Waldo, and people in a number of scientific studies that found valerian to help sleep, especially when used for several weeks. Other studies were inconclusive about its effectiveness, and in some cases, especially where chronic fatigue was present, valerian seemed to act as a stimulant. But historical records indicate it’s been used for insomnia since ancient times, including by Hippocrates and Galen.

How it works chemically is not really understood. It contains valepotriates, which are a naturally occurring kind of alkaloid, a chemical base that occurs naturally in many plants and is involved in the biochemical effects of, for example, opium and nicotine. The valepotriates may work in tandem with another chemical that is thought to regulate nerve cells and play a role in calming anxiety. Whatever its chemistry is, valerian is generally said to have effects similar to drugs like Valium, though Valium, contrary to herbal legend, is not made from valerian.


Valerian might be safer, overall, than its synthetic counterpart. Or if you’re not careful, it might not. There’s kind of an uncertainly charted twilight zone between sleep and death that has many entryways, one of which might be a drug, and another might be a mind-altering vision of summer flowers in a hayfield. Or some unexpected combination of the two. The twilight zone can cross the terminator, if you’re digging roots for tea and unclear what you’re doing.

Valerian visually resembles a number of other wildflowers in our nook of the cosmos. Dwarf ginseng is one. Queen Anne’s lace and yarrow are two others, along with several more in the parsley family, including hemlocks.

About 25 years ago two brothers were looking for ginseng in midcoast Maine and found some, they thought, so they tested it by chewing pieces of the root. Less than an hour later the younger brother was vomiting and convulsing, and medical help was called. A couple of hours later, the older was seizing and delirious. Three hours later, the younger was dead.

They had chewed water hemlock (Cicuta maculata), which to an unpracticed eye can look like ginseng, Queen Anne’s lace, yarrow — or valerian. In extreme cases just getting its sap on your skin can kill you. The difference between death and sleep is the water hemlock’s cicutoxin and the valerian’s alkaloids. Even biochemistry has its metaphors.

No one knows the exact chemical location where brain hallucinations, delirium and death intersect with the visionary beauty of summer flowers. Some twilit region you can go at will, it seems, and sometimes against it. Take care there, on the edge of the field.

Dana Wilde lives in Troy. You can contact him at [email protected] Backyard Naturalist appears the second and fourth Thursdays each month.

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