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Catnip and Catmint Plants: Interesting Herbs and Their Uses
What Is Catnip?
Catnip is a fascinating plant which 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 is a member of the mint family (Lamiaceae) and is related to peppermint and spearmint.
The Catnip Plant
Catnip is a perennial herb. 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.
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.
Catnip grows well in full sun or partial shade and in dry to medium dry soil. It's a hardy plant that is resistant to most pests. Some people report that the plant spreads rapidly. It can be grown in containers.
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).
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 plastic 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.
A Happy Cat
A Catnip Poll
Does your cat respond to the presence of catnip?
The Joy of Catnip Oil for 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.
Catnip and Big Cat Rescue
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.
Effects 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:
- colds and flu
- stomach upsets
- hemorrhoids (when used as a poultice)
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 breast-feeding. 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.
A Cat and Her Kitten Enjoy Catnip
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 reportedly repel certain insects, including ants, aphids, cockroaches, mosquitoes, and stable flies. Researchers at Iowa State University have found that nepetalactone is ten times more effective than DEET (a common insecticide) in repelling yellow fever mosquitoes.
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.
© 2013 Linda Crampton