( Scientific Name: Nepeta cataria)
Catnip is native to Eurasia , from the Eastern Mediterranean Region to the Eastern Himalayas , but is naturalized over much of North America and is easily grown in most gardens particularly in the Midwest . Catnip is a hardy, upright, perennial herb with sturdy stems bearing hairy, heart-shaped, grayish-green leaves. The flowers are white or lilac, 0.25 inch long, and occur in several clusters toward the tips of the branches. Catnip is also called “catmint”… the names “catnip” and “catmint” are sometimes used interchangeably, however, they are two different varieties of nepeta. The botanical name for what we call “catnip” is Nepeta cataria, a hardy perennial groundcover that grows 2- to 3-feet high. Nepeta faassenii, better known as catmint, forms soft mounds about 2-feet high. Both varieties grow throughout North America .
Cultivation and Propagation:
It is easily cultivated in any garden soil, with little care, as the plant does not require the moisture that most mint plants need. Plants should be grown from seed sown where they are going to stand. Bruised or recently transplanted plants are likely to be eaten by cats unless protected. The seed should be sown very thinly in rows 20 inches apart and the seedlings thinned out to 20 inches apart in the rows. It requires almost no care except occasional weeding. A bed will last several years. It can also be propagated by division of the roots in spring.
The herb is harvested just before flowering in middle to late summer on a dry sunny day and in late morning when all dew is gone. Catnip is harvested when this essential oil production reaches its peak, and leaves and fragrant flowers are carefully air-dried to preserve essential oils at their best. Drying should be done carefully. The leaves are stripped from the stems and dried as quickly as possible with good ventilation out of direct sunlight, or in an oven at 150 degrees Fahrenheit to avoid losing much volatile oil.
Herbalists have used catnip for many centuries… over 2000 years ago Romans used it for cooking and healing. During the Middle Ages, catnip was used for the treatment of nervousness, colds, and gastrointestinal complaints. Fifteenth century English cooks would rub catnip leaves on meats before cooking and add it to mixed green salads. Before Chinese tea became widely available, catnip tea was very popular. It was introduced to the New World by early settlers who cultivated the herb for medicinal purposes and food. Catnip is an excellent sleep-inducing agent (as with valerian, in certain individuals it acts as a stimulant).
Taken as a hot infusion, Catnip promotes sweating and is beneficial for colds, flues, fevers, and infectious childhood diseases. It is soothing to the nervous system and calming to the stomach. It aids with flatulence, diarrhea, and colic. It is sometimes used as an enema to cleanse and heal the lower bowel (use in diluted form). Catnip helps to prevent miscarriage and premature birth as well as allays morning sickness.
For centuries humans have grown catnip for humans, but the herb is best known for its action on cats.
Just how did cats become acquainted with it? Some theorize that the Egyptians, known for their worship of cats, were probably the first to offer catnip to their furry idols. Those who support this theory suggest that since Egyptians introduced domestic cats to the Middle East , they may have also introduced the pleasing effects of catnip on most cats.
Catnip causes many cats to experience a trance-like state of extreme pleasure and playfulness. Studies show that cats react to catnip by inhaling it, rather than by ingesting it. Although many cats will eat it, scientists say they're reacting to the smell rather than the taste. Felines bite, chew, rub against, and roll in catnip to release the volatile oil trapped in the leaves.
The pleasure factor in catnip is the chemical compound nepetalactone , which seems to have a mildly hallucinogenic effect on cats. Nepetalactone is similar to a chemical found in the urine of female cats, and this may be why unneutered males have stronger reactions to catnip than females and neutered males. Some speculate that nepetalactone stimulates the region of a cat's brain associated with sexual behavior. The feline receptor for nepetalactone is in the vomeronasal organ , located above the feline palate. The location of the vomeronasal organ may explain why cats do not react from eating gelatin-enclosed capsules of catnip. Nepetalactone must be inhaled for it to reach the receptors in the vomeronasal organ. The intensity of responses varies from cat to cat. Its effect is short-lived, usually 5 to 20 minutes and after enjoying this brief “catnip high,” a cat is unable to respond to catnip again for about an hour.
The cat's responsiveness to catnip is inherited and is sometimes described as the presence or absence of a “catnip gene.” About 30 percent of cats do not have this gene… so not every cat will get a catnip buzz. Kittens with this gene do not respond to catnip until about six to eight months of age. Illness or stress may prevent a response. It's not just domestic house cats that have an affinity for catnip -- even lions, pumas, and leopards are said to enjoy a roll in the 'nip'. Strange as it may seem, the different responses are probably due to environmental factors, genetics, and the gender of the cat (males are more likely to respond than females). If a cat which normally reacts to catnip is in a strange environment or is anxious, she may not react to the catnip. Cats in certain genetic 'lines' do not react to catnip. No one really understands the genetic trait, but it can be bred into a line through genetic selection.
For the catnip-loving cat, sniffing this herb is harmless and non-addictive. Give catnip no more than once a week or the effects may diminish. Cats love it green and fresh. Bruise it slightly before giving freshly cut stems or leaves. If using dried catnip, store it in a sealed container in the refrigerator and give up to a teaspoon per cat weekly.
Cockroaches and other Insects:
There is scientific evidence that catnip and nepetalactone may be effective cockroach repellents. Iowa State University researchers found nepetalactone to be 100x more effective at repelling cockroached than DEET, a common (and toxic) insect repellent. Purified nepetalactone has also been shown to kill flies. There is also evidence that nepetalactone may serve as an insect sex pheromone in Hemiptera Aphidae (aphids) and a defense substance in Orthoptera Phasmatidae (walking sticks).