Catnip, Nepeta cataria, is a perennial herb found growing wild throughout North America, Europe, and parts of China. It is a member of the mint family, most closely related to varieties of Nepeta mussinii, which are more commonly referred to as “catmint.” Nepeta cataria is true catnip, the plant most cats go crazy for. It is a more “weedy,” sparse-looking plant and is less ornamental than catmint varieties. However, the plants are virtually indistinguishable when dried and catmint is sometimes sold as catnip. Most cats will not react to catmint, but rarely, some will. Reactivity to catnip is also not universal. It is genetically determined, affecting about 70 to 80 percent of cats, according to Scientific American. If your cat doesn’t seem to like catnip, first make sure you are using the real thing. If your cat still doesn’t respond, he or she may be in the 20 to 30 percent of cats for whom it is just another green plant.
So why do cats love catnip? Are they really getting “high”? The answer is essentially yes. According to veterinarian Ramona Turner in Scientific American, “Nepetalactone, one of [the plant’s] volatile oils, enters the cat’s nasal tissue, where it is believed to bind to protein receptors that stimulate sensory neurons. These cells, in turn, provoke a response in neurons in the olfactory bulb, which project to several brain regions.” The resulting response is similar to that exhibited by queens (female cats) in heat. “That is, the cat essentially reacts to an artificial cat pheromone.” Cat guardians will be relieved to learn, however, that the pleasurable experience of a catnip-induced “high” is non-addictive. It is completely harmless and offers an enjoyable feeling that can also make it useful in lessening a cat’s stress before a visit to the vet’s office.
While human brains do not react the same way to this feline favorite, catnip nevertheless has some surprising uses for us, too. It has an aromatic, mint-like flavor. Its young shoots can be eaten raw in summer salads, added to stews or rubbed into meat. In addition to these culinary uses, the leaves and flowering tops of the plant have long been employed in herbal remedies. Catnip is known for its relaxing properties and is often used in calming tea preparations. It has also been used as a remedy for a variety of digestive problems and, in stronger doses, to reduce fever and/or cough. Applied as a poultice, it can be helpful for skin irritations, and a strong infusion is effective in repelling fleas and mosquitoes. The root of the plant, while not poisonous, is best avoided by both cats and humans, as this is the part most frequently credited with inducing aggressive-type behaviors.
You don’t have to be an expert gardener to grow your own catnip and/or catmint. Both are extremely easy to grow, drought-resistant and require little maintenance. The plants are hardy, growing in either poor or rich soil. Nepeta mussinii, catmint, in particular, is lovely as an ornamental. All Nepeta plants have attractive gray-green leaves and lavender-colored or white flowers, and both catnip and catmint are a favorite of bees and other beneficial pollinators. The plants are known to repel aphids and some other garden pests as well. If you decide to grow Nepeta for your cat, however, you will probably want to be sure you are growing true catnip, Nepeta cataria. It can be grown in containers, but won’t flourish there as it will if planted where its roots can spread. Still, it’s possible to keep a potted catnip plant on the porch for kitty, and this will typically overwinter, if kept away from frost.
You may discover that a few leaves of fresh-cut catnip, smashed or torn to release their oils, are much more fun for your cat (and for you, watching your cat!) than sprays or store-bought dried leaves. These can be old, may be composed of less fragrant parts of the plant, and may not even be true catnip. If you’ve grown your own, however, it is easy to dry and store for the winter. At the end of the growing season, simply clip stems with leaves and blooms. Lay them flat on a paper towel or hang them somewhere dry out of direct sunlight (and out of reach of your cat!). You and your cat can enjoy the fresh-dried leaves and flowers all year long. And if you’re feeling adventurous, you can make a relaxing cup of catnip tea or try out some of the other culinary uses for this surprisingly well-rounded, multipurpose herb!