Sitka valerian (Valeriana sitchensis) grows in mountain meadows, along stream banks and in open subalpine forests from mid to, more usually, high elevations in Alaska, Western Canada, Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho and Montana..
The subalpine meadows where Sitka valerian is common often are snowbound until late in the summer. The red shoots of this plant push up through the melting snow. As the foliage develops the redness disappears, lingering longest in the pinkish flowers which turn white as they mature.
This redness seen in Sitka valerian is caused by anthocyanin, a complex carbohydrate pigment. Anthocyanin appears to have three functions in these high elevation plants:
- Anthocyanin filters out ultraviolet light, which is particularly intense at high elevations and in the summer. Ultraviolet light can be more harmful to plant tissue than it is to humans.
- This pigment seems to absorb and concentrate infrared heating the plant.
- Sitka valerian stores carbohydrates in its roots overwinter. In summer, because of its short growing season, Sitka valerian must bring its root carbohydrates into the plant quickly. Anthocyanin is an intermediate form for carbohydrates as they move into the plant after winter storage.
The rhizomous roots of Sitka valerian are strongly aromatic in a rank way. The stems are rather succulent and can reach three feet in height. The opposite leaves may be sparsely haired. The short-petioled leaves are pinnately divided into 3 to 7 coarsely toothed or lobed leaflets with the terminal leaflet being the largest.
The Sitka valerian inflorescence is a cyme consisting of numerous flowers arranged in a dense, flat-topped cluster. The pale-pink to white flowers have an asymmetric five-lobed tube. The ovary is inferior. The stamens are fused to the petal tube. Protruding from the flower tube are the three anthers and the style.
The persistent sepals are modified into feathery bristles which top the Sitka valerian fruits, egg-shaped, ribbed achenes.
Native Americans crushed Sitka valerian roots and rubbed the poultice on sore muscles. Although not very palatable, the cooked roots and leaves were eaten during times of famine. Modern day herbal practitioners use Sitka valerian as a sleep aid, to reduce blood pressure and as a sedative, among other uses. The Pied Piper of lore is said to have kept aromatic Sitka valerian roots in his pocket as an attractant for the animals that followed him. Many insects, including bees and butterflies, are attracted to Sitka valerian flowers.
V sitchensis, is also commonly called mountain valerian. The genus name, Valeriana, is from the Latin “valere” (be strong) and refers to the medicinal properties attributed to this plant. The species name means “from Sitka”, a city in Southeastern Alaska.
These Sitka valerian plants were photographed in late June along Munson Creek on Lady of the Woods Trail at Crater Lake National Park (Oregon).