2018-07-07 / Columnists

Nature Notes

Valerian and Golden Lungwort Decorate Mackinac Island Forest
By Patricia Martin

The other day I was riding my horse up the East Bluff and into the cedar woods when I was struck by the presence of two flowers that were blooming in profusion. Both of these plants are not native to North America, let alone Mackinac Island, and both of them may be considered an invasive species depending upon the locale. Both of these plants have been on the Island for quite some time; in fact, long enough that most locals would not consider these plants unusual or foreign or exotic, but they are. The two I am talking about are valerian and golden lungwort, sometimes called golden hawkweed or common European hawkweed.

It was the valerian, with its heady scent, that I first noticed growing along the bluff. Valerian, or garden valerian (Valerian officinalis), is a perennial flowering plant native to Europe and Asia. It stands between 1.5 and 4 feet tall and grows from a small rhizome which has fibrous roots. The stem of the plant is usually pubescent (hairy), especially at the nodes where the leaves come out. There are leaves at the base, as well as those growing up the stem, which are pinnately divided into 11 to 21 lance-shaped leaflets which are generally toothed (some may be smooth), and there are a few hairs on the underside of the leaves. The flowers of the valerian plant are very fragrant and are pale pink or white, numerous flowers which are arranged in umbels. The individual flowers are very small, less than a quarter of an inch across, but when all grouped together they are quite showy. The flowers bloom from late June through August. The scent of the flowers attracts many fly species, especially hoverflies, and some of the larvae of certain butterflies and moths use this plant as food. It is hardy to a garden Zone 5, which means that Mackinac is about as far north as this plant will survive.

At right: Golden lungwort carpets the forest floor on Mackinac Island. Above, a close-up of the flower. At right: Golden lungwort carpets the forest floor on Mackinac Island. Above, a close-up of the flower. This plant has been used as a medicinal herb since at least the time of the ancient Greeks. Hippocrates described its properties and Galen prescribed it as a remedy for insomnia. (In medieval sweeten it was sometimes placed in the wedding clothes of the groom to ward of the “envy” of the elves.) It has been used for a variety of ailments over the years and was planted in many gardens. It is used to sooth and calm people suffering from nervous strain and to encourage sleep. It has been thought to reduce blood pressure and used in the treatment of painful menstruation, cramps, and irritable bowel syndrome. I have heard that people also use it to help with migraines.

I cannot attest to the effectiveness of this plant but it is still sold by herbalists. It seems that the active ingredients are called valepotriates, which research has confirmed have calming effects on agitated people but are also stimulants in cases of fatigue. It is the root that is usually used for its medical properties. One report indicates that prolonged medicinal use of valerian can lead to addiction, so a course of treatment should not exceed three months, and it is suggested that it should not be taken with other sedatives (alcohol) nor used before driving a car, and probably not a good idea to drive horses while on it, either, as you don’t want to fall asleep at the reins.

This plant has also been used as food. An essential oil from the leaves and root is used as a flavoring in ice cream, baked goods, and condiments. It apparently gives off an apple flavor.

The plant is used in moderation as herbal tea. The essential oil from the roots is used in perfumery to provide a mossy aroma, although most people consider the sent disagreeable. The plant can be used to make a very good liquid plant food and is used with several other herbs in composting to help speed up bacterial activity and shorten the time needed to make the compost.

It is considered an invasive species is several parts of North America. It is cultivated for medical use but because it can grow in a variety of habitats, from grasslands to wooded areas, from dry to wet soil, so the possibility of it escaping into the natural landscape is high and it may displace native plant species.

The second plant I saw in great abundance on my ride is the golden lungwort or common European hawkweed (Hieracium murorum), which has naturalized particularly in Mackinac’s cedar woods. It is one of a number of Hawkweed that have naturalized in North America, the most easily recognized being the devil’s paintbrush or orange hawkweed (H. aurantiacum).

As I mentioned earlier this year in the invasive species columns, golden lungwort is in the aster family and has bright yellow flattened “petals” which might remind you of a dandelion. These are really individual flowers which are packed tightly together. They have a rosette of basal leaves which are simple, have teeth, and are hairy. There are other leaves which are arranged alternately on the stem.

These plants have taken over the forest floor below the northern white-cedars that belt Mackinac Island. It is rather startling, as very little used to grow in the dense cedars but now there is a carpet of yellow and they have spread into the mixed forests along roadsides. They now seem to be marching through the Island. Fifty years ago you would have seen few, if any, of the golden lungwort here at Mackinac.

Both of these plants, valerian and golden lungwort, are at the height of their blooming right now and their show is rather impressive.

Trish Martin is a year-around resident of Mackinac Island, has earned a master’s degree in botany from Central Michigan University, and owns Bogan Lane Inn.

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