Catnip and Catmint Plants: Interesting Herbs and Their Uses

Updated on September 20, 2018
AliciaC profile image

Linda Crampton is a writer and teacher with an honors degree in biology. She loves to study nature and write about animals and plants.

A cat rubbing his body against a catnip plant
A cat rubbing his body against a catnip plant | Source

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 belongs to a group 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 catnip 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 two cats were.

Catnip flowers
Catnip flowers | Source

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.

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.

The catnip plant (Nepeta cataria)
The catnip plant (Nepeta cataria) | Source

How to Grow Catnip

Some people grow catnip in their garden. If you do this, be aware that either your own cat or visiting cats may crush and 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)
Source

Catmint and Catnip

The use of the name "catmint" is somewhat confusing. It's often used as a group name for all members of the genus Nepeta. In this case, catnip is classified as a type of catmint. However, some people use "catmint" as the name for one or more plant species in the genus Nepeta, but not for catnip, which they consider to be a different variety of plant.

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.

If you're buying seeds to grow in your garden, look at the scientific name of the plant to avoid confusion. If you 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 and aren't interested in harvesting catnip leaves for food or herbal teas, avoid this species.

Some species of Nepeta have several common names. If you discover a species which 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).

The beautiful flowers of Nepeta subsessilis, a type of catmint; the plant attracts cats less strongly than catnip
The beautiful flowers of Nepeta subsessilis, a type of catmint; the plant attracts cats less strongly than catnip | Source

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.

Effects of the Herb

I get catnip for my cats occasionally. I buy organic catnip 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 cat 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 catnip 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 catnip.

You may find that your cat responds more strongly to some brands of catnip than to others, just as my cats do. Their favourite kind is unfortunately also the most expensive. It's sold by one 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 catnip to experience these symptoms, though. The PetMD article referenced below says that some people feel that catnip should be given to a cat only once every two to three weeks.

A Catnip Poll

Does your cat respond to the presence of catnip?

See results

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 catnip.

Researchers know that cats are responding to the smell of the active chemical in catnip, but beyond that the cat's 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.

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.

Effect on Humans

Catnip is used to make a tea for human consumption. Catnip 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 tea 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 is needed.

Traditional Uses of the Herb

Catnip is traditionally said to relieve:

  • insomnia
  • fever
  • colds and flu
  • stomach upsets
  • colic
  • headaches
  • hives
  • 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 or is accompanied by other symptoms, a doctor's advice should be sought.

A cat sleeping in a bed of catnip
A cat sleeping in a bed of catnip | Source

Possible Dangers

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 catnip if you're pregnant, since there is evidence that it may affect the uterus, increasing the risk of a miscarriage.
  • Catnip appears to increase bleeding during menstruation.
  • Don't use catnip while breastfeeding. Its safety in this situation is unknown.
  • Since catnip may act as a sedative in humans, don't drink catnip tea 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 catnip doesn't sedate you.

Other Uses of Catnip

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.

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.

My cat Smudge investigates the catnip
My cat Smudge investigates the catnip | Source

Using Herbs

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.

References

Questions & Answers

    © 2013 Linda Crampton

    Comments

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      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        It's amazing to see how much some cats love catnip! Thanks for the comment and the vote, moonlake.

      • moonlake profile image

        moonlake 

        5 years ago from America

        I wish I had filmed our cat the other night when I gave him catnip. He went crazy it was so funny. We try to grow catnip but the cats keep eating it. Interesting hub voted up.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thank you very much for the visit and the votes, Sasha. Congratulations on the pregnancy!

      • Mama Kim 8 profile image

        Sasha Kim 

        5 years ago

        I'd never seen catnip or catmint flowers before ^_^ they're pretty. I also had no idea it was a human used herb... being pregnant I'll stay away from it for now but I'm curious for the future. Thank you for the education ^_^ voting a bunch!

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thank you very much, Deb. I appreciate your visit and comment, as always. Catnip and catmint are interesting herbs!

      • aviannovice profile image

        Deb Hirt 

        5 years ago from Stillwater, OK

        At least now I know why kittens are not impressed with the herb. This was a wonderful piece with a lot of information. I think I just might grow some for plant pests.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thank you for the visit and the comment, Scribenet. That's how I use catnip with my cats too. I give it to them as an occasional treat.

      • Scribenet profile image

        Scribenet 

        5 years ago from Ontario, Canada

        Great information. My cat adores catnip and rolls around in it and then mellows out. I did think he ate some which made him vomit later and your Hub confirms that. Now I will spread only small amounts where he can't ingest them. I use it to give him a change in his routine when he seems bored once in a while rather than a regular treat.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thanks, drbj. I appreciate your visit. Catnip is certainly an unusual plant!

      • drbj profile image

        drbj and sherry 

        5 years ago from south Florida

        Interesting information, Alicia, about a very interesting and unusual plant. Seems there is still much about catnip/catmint that we are not aware of.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thank you very much for the vote and the share, Nell! Catnip is a fascinating herb. There's so much that needs to be discovered about it.

      • Nell Rose profile image

        Nell Rose 

        5 years ago from England

        Hi Alicia, I must admit I have never heard of the chemical nepetalactone, but I do know the effects too, our cats went mad for it! fascinating hub, and voted and shared!

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thanks for the interesting comment, Maren Morgan. I think that Smudge is adorable, too! We got him from a cat rescue association. He had a sad start in life, but he's happy now.

      • Maren Morgan M-T profile image

        Maren Elizabeth Morgan 

        5 years ago from Pennsylvania

        I have given my cats fresh Nepeta leaves with no reaction; but dried catnip from the store? Lookout! BTW, your Smudge looks adorable.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thanks for the comment and the vote, PaisleeGal. Thank you for sharing the hub with your friend, too. I appreciate it!

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Hi, Bill. Catnip is an interesting plant. I don't think the fact that it can be used by both cats and humans is well known today! As always, thank you very much for the visit and the comment.

      • PaisleeGal profile image

        Pat Materna 

        5 years ago from Memphis, Tennessee, USA

        Interesting ... I'm not a cat person but have a good friend who is ... and she gives her furry roommates catnip on occasion. Had no idea it was something for humans .

        Good hub .. will share with my friend. Voted up

      • billybuc profile image

        Bill Holland 

        5 years ago from Olympia, WA

        I have never grown this and I honestly had no idea what it was used for. Thank you for great information. I might just try one this spring.

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