Valerian, Red-Spur

Medical Herbs Catalogue


Valerian, Red-Spur

Botanical Name: Centranthus rubra (D. C.)
Family: N.O. Valerianaceae

Synonyms: Pretty Betsy. Bouncing Bess. Delicate Bess. Drunken Sailor. Bovisand Soldier.
Habitat: England, Scotland and the Mediterranean countries.

The Red-Spur Valerian, a plant with lance-shaped, untoothed leaves and red flowers with a spur at the base, grouped in dense clusters, must not be confounded with the true medicinal Valerian, though the mistake is often made. It is destitute of the properties of the official Valerian, and is not usefully applied in England, though in some parts of Continental Europe the leaves are eaten. They are exceedingly good in salad, or cooked as a vegetable, and in France there is a sale for the roots for soups.

This plant is not truly British, but is perfectly naturalized in the south of England, being found quite often growing on rocks or walls, in old chalk-pits, railway cuttings and waste places in Kent and Devonshire, though less frequently in the northern counties and only in a few places in Scotland. It is naturally a native of the Mediterranean countries, and was probably originally introduced as a decorative plant. It is mentioned by many of the older writers as a garden flower. Gerard, writing in 1597, saying: 'It groweth plentifully in my garden, being a great ornament to the same.' Parkinson (1640) says that it grows 'in our gardens chiefly, for we know not the natural place.'

Description: The root-stock is perennial and very freely branching, enabling it to take a firm hold in the crevices in which it has once gained possession. The stems are stout, somewhat shrubby at the base, between 1 and 2 feet long, hollow and very smooth in texture. The leaves 2 to 4 inches long and pointed, opposite one another in pairs, are somewhat fleshy, their outlines generally quite entire. The very numerous flowers are in masses, either of a rich crimson colour, a delicate pink, or much more rarely white, and are in bloom from June to September. The spur to the long, tubular corolla is a marked feature. Each flower only contains one stamen. The fruit is small and dry, the border of the surrounding calyx forming a feathery rosette or pappus.

Linnaeus included this species with the Valerians, as Valeriana rubra, but De Candolle assigned it to a separate genus, Centranthus, in which all later botanists have followed him. The name of the genus comes from the Greek kentron (a spur) and anthos (a flower), in reference to the corolla being furnished with a spur at the base, which absolutely distinguishes it from the true Valerian, apart from other differences.

'Pretty Betsy' and 'Bouncing Bess' are popular names for the Red Valerian. Near Plymouth, we find the names 'Drunken Sailor' and 'Bovisand Soldier,' and in West Devon, the smaller, paler kind is known as 'Delicate Bess.