Catnip: Not Just for Cats

 By Tricia McCauley

M.S. Herbal Medicine

‘If you set it, the cats will eat it,

If you sow it, the cats don’t know it.’ (from Maude Grieve’s

img_3281Catnip is a simple, gentle herb that I love for many reasons, one of which is that people are so amazed to learn that it affects humans as well as cats! I also love its botanical name: Nepeta cataria.  The genus, Nepeta, references the plant’s traditional name, Nep – it was called this in the 1600’s.  The second half of the name (the epithet) is hilarious to me: cataria.  Proof that botanists have great senses of humor.  Catnip is a member of the mint family (Lamiaceae), and has a distinctive minty yet medicinal scent.

About those cats: catnip is exciting for 2/3 of cats (including lions and tigers) when smelled, and calming when eaten.  1/3 of felines aren’t affected by the plant.  As noted above by Maude Grieve, if you grow catnip from seed, cats leave it alone.  When transplanted, cats will have territory wars and often kill the plant by laying on it. I once brought home a catnip seedling and put it in a pot on my deck.  My deck bordered a park full of feral cats (which was great, my urban neighborhood had no rats!).  My cat, Ziggy, wasn’t interested at all in catnip. He watched peacefully as a series of feral cats conducted drug wars on my deck, yowling at each other and fighting for space to sit on top of the catnip.  I finally covered the pot up with a mesh screen, which helped a little.

Catnip leaf and flower make a calming herbal infusion for humans. Like most herbs in the mint family, its gently bitter taste supports digestion, and in large doses it’s an emmenagogue.  In small doses (2 cups per day), it is very safe, and supports sleep.  Catnip is safe for babies and nursing mothers; its soothing properties can be transferred via breast milk.  Combine catnip with chamomile to enhance flavor and calm down mama and baby.  I love catnip as part of my sleep formula.

Catnip is easy to grow – unless the cats get to it.  In the right conditions, it will become a 3-foot tall perennial shrub, and it spreads less aggressively than some other mints. Catmint (Nepeta × faasenii) can be used interchangeably.  Catmint has smaller leaves and is lower to the ground, with purple flowers that bloom all season, which makes it a nice landscaping plant.

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