Catnip and Catmint Plants: Interesting Herbs and Their Uses
What Is Catnip?
Catnip is a fascinating plant that has traditionally been used as a seasoning and a medicinal herb. Its common name is derived from its effect on cats, which often enter a state of excited bliss when they smell the plant. The plant is a member of the mint family and has close relatives known as catmints.
Catnip has the scientific name Nepeta cataria. It's native to Europe and Asia but has been introduced to many other countries, where it often grows as a wildflower. Some people grow catnip in their garden as an ornamental or culinary plant. It's also grown commercially.
The plant's biggest claim to fame is its ability to attract cats. Experts say that catnip doesn't harm cats. It has such a pronounced effect on my cats' behavior that I feel more comfortable limiting their exposure to the herb, however, especially since researchers don't know exactly how the plant produces its effects.
The chemical in catnip that attracts cats is nepetalactone. Interestingly, not all cats are affected by this chemical. The attraction is determined genetically. My present three cats are all attracted to catnip, while neither of my previous ones were.
Catnip is a member of the mint family (Lamiaceae) and is related to peppermint and spearmint. It's native to Europe and Asia and has been introduced to North America. The Lamiaceae family also contains similar plants in the genus Nepeta that are known as catmints.
Features of the Plant
Catnip is a herbaceous perennial. The plant has a square stem that reaches a height of one to four feet. The green or grey-green leaves are triangular or oval in shape and are toothed. They are attached to the stem in pairs, with one leaf in a pair opposite to the other leaf.
The plant produces small, white flowers that are arranged in whorls. These whorls are in turn arranged in vertical spikes. Each flower is tubular and has two "lips", which are lobed. The flowers sometimes bear small pink or purple spots. Occasionally, the whole flower is pale pink or lavender in colour. The flower blooms from May to September, depending on its location.
How to Grow Catnip
Some people grow catnip in their garden. If you do this, be aware that either your own cat or ones that visit the garden may destroy the young plant as they roll over it and enjoy its stimulation. A mature plant may be able to resist a cat's attention better than a young one. Covering the plant with mesh may be helpful.
Catnip grows well in full or partial sun and in dry to medium-dry soil. The Missouri Botanical Garden says that the plant tolerates drought well and that wet soil in winter can be deadly. In the right habitat, catnip is a hardy plant that is resistant to most pests. It's said to be deer resistant, though like other plants in this category there's always a chance that an individual deer will like it.
Some sources say that the plant grows in USDA plant hardiness zones 3 to 9, but others say that zones 3 to 7 is a more realistic range. The plant is easy to grow, but the seeds need to be close to the soil surface when planted. They should be pressed into the ground and then covered with a thin layer of soil. The seedlings will probably have to be thinned once they've grown. The plant self-seeds and often spreads widely.
Catnip can be grown in containers. It can also be grown indoors in a sunny area, but it will likely be destroyed by a resident cat before it gets very big. The pot should be kept in an area that the cat can't reach until the plant reaches a suitable size.
Plants are somewhat intolerant of the heat and humidity of the deep South where they generally appreciate some afternoon shade.— Missouri Botanical Garden (in reference to Nepeta cataria)
Effects of the Herb
I get catnip for my cats occasionally. I buy organic leaves that are dried and cut. They are sealed in a bag, but my cats quickly surround me when I enter my home with catnip and start searching for the leaves. Even I can smell the leaves in the unopened bag. They're very aromatic.
I sprinkle the catnip over the cats' scratch boxes or beds. They lick the leaves, rub their chins and cheeks against them, and wriggle over them in enthusiastic delight. The effect of the catnip is intense but temporary. After about ten minutes, the cats lose interest in the leaves and move away. They often become interested again about two hours later.
Some cats reportedly turn somersaults over the leaves. Others run around in excitement. Some shake their heads and vocalize with meows or growls. Some cats have the opposite response to excitement and become very mellow when they are exposed to the herb.
You may find that your cat responds more strongly to some brands of catnip than to others, as mine do. Their favourite kind is unfortunately also the most expensive. It's sold by a particular store in my area.
If a cat eats too much catnip, he or she may experience vomiting and diarrhea. Most cats don't eat enough of the herb to experience these symptoms, though. The PetMD article referenced below says that some people feel that catnip should be given to a pet only once every two to three weeks.
Effect of Catnip Oil on Domestic and Wild Cats
Cats exposed to a whole catnip plant may chew the leaves in addition to rolling over them. These activities release the volatile oil. A "volatile" oil is one that quickly evaporates. Catnip oil contains the nepetalactone that stimulates cats. Unused catnip should be placed in a tightly sealed bag and stored in the refrigerator to slow the evaporation of the oil.
Young kittens aren't stimulated by catnip. They become fully sensitive at around three months of age, if they have the appropriate genes. Senior cats may lose their previous interest in the herb.
Researchers know that cats are responding to the smell of the active chemical in the herb, but beyond that the response is still mysterious. It seems to contain aspects of play, reproductive behavior, and even predatory behavior. Several wild members of the cat family also respond to catnip. Many lions and leopards are stimulated by the herb, for example.
A Catnip Poll
Does your cat respond to the presence of catnip?
Effect on Humans
Catnip is used to make a tea for human consumption. The tea is produced by several companies, but some people prefer to make their own infusions by soaking fresh leaves or flowers in hot water. The infusion has a mild, minty taste. Catnip doesn't stimulate us as it stimulates cats. In fact, the tea is often relaxing.
Catnip has been used by humans for a long time. The tea appears to be safe for most people when drunk in low to moderate quantities. The herb is said to have a number of health benefits. I've found no scientific evidence for catnip's benefits in humans, however. This doesn't mean that there aren't any. More research by scientists is needed.
If you like catnip tea and have a cat who likes catnip as well, be prepared for a lot of attention from your feline companion when you're making or drinking a tea made from the herb.
Traditional Uses of the Herb
Catnip is traditionally said to relieve:
- colds and flu
- stomach upsets
- hemorrhoids (when used as a poultice)
The traditional uses are interesting, but they may or may not be valid. The safety precautions mentioned below should be noted whenever someone is considering using the herb. In addition, if a symptom listed above is serious, recurrent, or accompanied by other symptoms, a doctor's advice should be sought.
Although catnip appears to be generally safe, they are some points that should be kept in mind before using the herb.
- Don't drink catnip tea or eat the herb if you're pregnant, since there is evidence that it may affect the uterus, increasing the risk of a miscarriage.
- Don't ingest the herb while breastfeeding. Its safety in this situation is unknown.
- Catnip appears to increase bleeding during menstruation.
- Since catnip may act as a sedative in humans, don't drink a tea made from the plant while using other sedatives or before upcoming surgery that requires a general anesthetic.
- Don't drink catnip tea before doing an activity that requires alertness, such as driving a vehicle, unless you know that the plant doesn't sedate you.
- It's unknown whether it's safe to apply catnip to the skin. The action is probably unwise when someone is already showing signs of an allergic reaction, such as the appearance of hives.
Other Uses of the Herb
Catnip is used as a culinary herb and is added to stews, soups, pasta, salads, vegetables, and meats. The leaves may be crumbled and added to potpourris with other aromatic herbs. It's important that the plant's identity is certain and that it isn't contaminated by pesticides or pollutants if it's going to be eaten.
Catnip leaves have been found to repel certain insects, including ants, aphids, cockroaches, mosquitoes, and stable flies. Researchers have found that nepetalactone is at least as effective as DEET (a common insecticide) in repelling mosquitoes and may be even more effective. It might be a very useful substance in places where mosquitoes transmit diseases, provided it's used at an appropriate concentration.
The use of the name "catmint" is somewhat confusing. It's sometimes used as a group name for all members of the genus Nepeta. In this case, catnip is classified as a type of catmint. On the other hand, some people use "catmint" as the name for one or more plant species in the genus Nepeta but not for catnip.
Catnip's relatives have pretty lavender, purple, or blue flowers and are often preferred for gardens. Many people think that they look nicer than catnip. They have the added advantage of being less attractive to many cats.
Some species of Nepeta have several common names. If you discover a species that has a flower colour that appeals to you, make a note of the full scientific name of the plant. This will ensure that you buy the right seeds, no matter what common name is given in the seed catalogue or garden store (as long as the scientific name is given as well as the common name).
If you're buying seeds to grow in your garden and want to attract cats or investigate the benefits of catnip for humans, get Nepeta cataria seeds. If you want to reduce the chance of attracting cats to your garden, aren't interested in harvesting catnip leaves for food or herbal teas, or want flowers with a brighter colour, consider buying a different species. It's possible that other species of Nepeta are edible besides Nepeta cataria, as many members of the mint family are, but I haven't investigated this topic.
Cat grass is neither catnip nor catmint. It's grown from grain seeds, including wheat, oats, rye, and barley. Some cats like to nibble on the leaves that grow from the seeds. Grass shouldn't be gathered from outdoors to give to a cat because it may be contaminated with harmful substances. Cat grass kits can be bought in pet stores.
When a group of people repeatedly find that a herb helps them in some way, the knowledge becomes part of a tradition. Scientists often find that traditional beliefs about the benefits of herbs are true. On the other hand, rumours about herb benefits that have no foundation in reality sometimes spread, perhaps as a result of wishful thinking.
It will be interesting to see what scientists discover about catnip in the future. Until then, people can enjoy the herb in food and drinks and cats can enjoy its fragrance. I would suggest that the plant is used in moderation until we learn more about its effects on our bodies and the bodies of cats, though.
- Information about Nepeta cataria from the Missouri Botanical Garden
- Opinion about catnip for cats from Dr. Marty Becker DVM at Vetstreet
- Facts about the herb from PetMD
- Use of the herb in humans from WebMD
- Super catnip repels mosquitoes from Rutgers University
- Catnip oil and stable flies from the NIH (National Institutes of Health)
- Catmint facts from Better Homes and Gardens plant dictionary
© 2013 Linda Crampton