Catnip (Nepeta Cataria)
Catnip, Catswort, Catwort, Catmint
About This Plant
Catnip is a short-lived herbaceous perennial plant in the Mint family that is hardy in USDA zones 3-9. It grows to a height of about two to four feet tall. It is a species in the genus of Nepeta and the term “Catmint” is often used to refer to the genus as a whole.
Catnip plants bear some characteristic similarities to other plants in the Mint family. It is an erect plant with loosely branching square stems. Its aromatic, silvery, blue-green, heart-shaped leaves are wrinkled and scalloped. They are covered in a soft, downy hair that is especially wooly on the underneath side of the leaves causing them to appear almost white in color. The downy hair gives the entire plant a greyish appearance. Catnip becomes covered in pale lavender-blue, whitish, or pale pink flowers from July until September. The individual flowers are small and grow clustered on spikes up to five inches long. The flowers attract bees and butterflies, especially Skippers. Catnip has a characteristic, pungent odor that bears a resemblance to both Mint and Pennyroyal.
Catnip can be a great companion plant as long as care is taken to control its spread such as growing it in containers. It contains a compound, iridodial, that attracts lacewings, a beneficial insect that eat aphids and mites. It repels potato bugs, asparagus pests, squash bugs, and Japanese beetles. Rat and mice also have a strong dislike of the plant and it is deer and rabbit resistant. Nepetalactone, one of the main active constituents of Catnip, has been shown to repel mosquitos more effectively than Deet. An insecticidal spray can also be made from the plant by steeping it fresh in water, adding it to a spray bottle, and then spraying it on plants to help drive the insects away. Catnip itself tends to have minimal disease issues.
While having both culinary and medicinal applications, what Catnip is most known for, however, is its ability to attract house cats and drive them wild, making them playful and energetic. Nepetalactone, the active compound found in the oils of Catnip, mimics a feline pheromone that can trigger kitty brain receptors, leading to the euphoric side effects. The oils are released when the leaves are brushed against or crushed and that is why many cats can’t help but to rub back and forth against the plant or even lay on it, wallowing around. If sniffed, the compound acts as a stimulant and if eaten will act as a sedative. Not all felines are susceptible to the effects however. It is an inherited trait and only about two-thirds of cats inherit the behavior. Kittens actually tend to dislike it. It’s not until cats mature a bit at several months of age that they develop the taste for it. The effects last from five to fifteen minutes and then wear off, followed by a period of about 30 minutes when the cats are resistant to the effects. Catnip can be dried and added to cat toys or sachets. It is completely safe and non-addictive to cats.
Catnip has been employed for centuries for medicinal purposes. There are records of ancient Romans using it as an herbal tonic to treat a variety of ailments. It was introduced to the Americas in the 1600’s and was used by boxers during the 1700’s. They chewed it before matches believing it made them more aggressive.
In the U.S. we tend to use the common name “Catnip” while in the U.K., it’s more likely to be called “Catmint”. In the U.S., “Catmint” tends to refer to the other more ornamental varieties of plants in the Nepeta genus which cats are not as attracted to. So, if buying this plant for your feline friends, be sure to pay attention to the Latin name, making sure you get Nepeta cataria.
Catnip seeds can be started indoors a few weeks before planting time or sown outdoors in Spring when a light frost is still possible. The seeds can be tough and you’ll have better luck germinating them if you stratify or slightly damage them first. You can do this by placing them in a freezer overnight and then placing them in a bowl of water for 24 hours. When planting, press the seeds into the soil and lightly cover them with soil. Germination should take place in about 7-14 days. Catnip can also be propagated by stem cuttings and division.
Catnip seedlings can be transplanted or thinned to about 12” apart. It’s good to acclimate seedlings that have been started indoors to outdoor growing conditions for about 10 to 15 days before planting out. Seedlings can also be grown in small clumps of 4-6 plants with the clumps spaced 12” apart. Wait to transplant seedlings until they are about five inches tall or have five to six leaves.
Catnip is a very low maintenance plant that tolerates a variety of soil types and growing conditions. It does fine in poor soils, including those that are chalky or gravelly as long as the soil is well-draining. The plants will tolerate full sun but prefer some afternoon shade if grown in hot climates. Catnip is drought resistant once established but will need regular watering while it’s getting started. Allow the soil to dry out between waterings though. No fertilization is needed. Like other aromatic herbaceous plants, fertilization will encourage prolific vegetative growth but reduces the quality of its oils.
In the Spring, cut out the spent stems of last year’s growth to make room for new ones. Cutting the plant back after its first blooming will allow the plant to regrow and bloom again. This is important especially if you want to deter the plant from aggressively spreading. Harvesting the plants frequently encourages bushier growth and prevents the plants from becoming scraggly.
All parts of Catnip plants can be cut and dried at any point if you are harvesting it for use with your felines. It’s best to wait until the plants are at least six inches tall. The parts utilized for medicinal applications are the flowering tops and leaves. The flowering tops are harvested when the plant is in full bloom, usually around August. Leaves should be harvested just before the flowers begin to open.
Seeds can be harvested as they mature in late summer and early Fall. Wait for the flowering stalks to begin drying, cut, and hang them in a warm, dry place to complete the drying process. It’s a good idea to tie a paper sack around the drying seed heads to capture any seeds that fall in the process. Once completely dry, garble the flowerheads between your fingers, capturing the seeds and plant material in a bowl, and then separate out the seed.
- Insecticide & mosquito repellant
- Feline fun
Catnip can be used in the kitchen anywhere you’d use Mint. The fresh leaves can be chopped and added to salads, soups, sauces, or desserts for a minty flavor. In France, Catnip is commonly grown among culinary herbs and the leaves and young shoots are used for seasoning.
Catnip leaves, used fresh or dried, make a refreshing tea that is high in Vitamin C. It has traditionally been employed in conditions such as nervousness, insomnia, hyperactivity, colds and fevers. It aids in inducing perspiration and reducing fevers in cold remedies. It has sedative and relaxant properties making it useful for nervous conditions and to help induce sleep. It has been used to relieve headaches and to bring on mensus. It causes slight uterine contractions so it should not be used in pregnancy. It is sometimes used to help with the expulsion of the placenta after birth. It can also be used for nausea and diarrhea. Externally, adding it to a bath can help with skin irritations.
Catnip is commonly used as a mild nervine for children, helping to calm them and diminish nightmares. It is used to relieve childhood colic.
When preparing Catnip tea, be sure to infuse the herb and not boil it. Its oils and therapeutic qualities are somewhat volatile and care should be taken to not diminish them. Also, when steeping the herb, be sure to cover it so the oils are not lost. If the warm tea is drunk in very large quantities, it can act as an emetic. Catnip has traditionally been consumed as a tea, juice, tincture, infusion, poultice, or even smoked. It was once believed that smoking the leaves would produce a mild hallucinogenic effect. In the more esoteric arts, Catnip has been traditionally used to attract lovers, much in the same way it attracts cats, by throwing one into a frenzy.
Avoid Catnip if you are pregnant as it causes mild uterine contractions or if you are scheduled for surgery within the next couple of weeks as it may alter how you react to anesthesia.
Catnip is native to Eurasia which includes southern and eastern Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia and parts of China. It is now widely naturalized in northern Europe, New Zealand and North America.