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The Joys of Catnip

One of the plants that is always good to grow for your cats is Catnip Nepeta cataria (also known as catmint)This wonderful little flowering perennial herb comes in a great variety of forms and flower colours, from white through pink to quite dark purple shades.  Some of these are deeply attractive to many cats, others are not, but all are nice and safe for your cat should they decide to help with a little pruning!

In the cats run here we’re currently growing 3 very different varieties of Nepeta:

    Nepeta subsessilis “Candy Cat” (A) -

    This variety has large leaves and spikes of clear pink flowers from midsummer to early autumn.

    Nepeta x faassenii “Alba” (B) -

    This variety has small heart shaped leaves and small white flowers which bloom in the summer.

    Nepeta sentenisii “Six Hills Giant” (C) -

    By far the tallest growing of the three varieties, with far more woody stems, this is another strongly scented type with darker greyish leaves than the Alba and amazing lavender blue flowers throughout the summer.

 The true wonder of catnip (nepeta cataria)

and why it should be planted absolutely everywhere!

Catnip will grow happily in pots on a patio or as a part of the vegetable or flower garden. This amazing little plant is nearly pest-free, so it can be grown organically with ease.  Once fully established catnip can survive long periods of drought, and being a perennial herb it will keep growing year after year, while affording you all its amazing benefits.

Why plant catnip and risk becoming the local hangout for all the cats in the neighborhood?  Because catnip has a multitude of useful applications that can only but benefit most households.  This humble little plant is so hated by mice and rats that they will not approach it even when driven by hunger, so if a house is infested with mice or rats, a thick planting of this herb against the walls will quickly eliminate them.  The fact is, neither mice nor rats will not cross a lush planting of catnip!

Oh yes catnip is more than just a feline narcotic of the highest grade, or even a pretty flowering herb to beautify your garden with.  In fact it’s only in recent years that scientists have been looking at this most wonderful little plant more fully and learning some of its amazing secrets! You see, the active ingredients in catnip that drive cats crazy also repels cockroaches, ants, aphids, Colorado beetles, darkling beetles, Japanese beetles, squash bugs, weevils, mice, rats and deer! 

There has been research on catnip done in Iowa, which should pave the way for the development of natural repellents that could be added to food packaging to deter marauding insects in the future.

Additionally it’s been found that mosquitoes hate the aroma of common garden catnip, and not only are the extracts safe, but they are more effective than Diethyl-m-toluamide, or DEET, the chemical used in most commercial insect repellents. So soon the shelves could well be stocked with catnip spray as an ecologically and environmentally sound alternative to this chemical insect deterrent! 

The fact is catnip has long been used in folk medicine to ward off insects, but still most people turn to DEET when they want to be sure they won’t get bitten. But those wonderful researchers at Iowa State University have shown that a relatively weak solution of catnip extract repels mosquitoes as effectively as a DEET solution ten times more concentrated. They tested this by putting groups of 20 mosquitoes in a glass tube which had filter paper in one end treated with either a catnip extract or DEET. Ten minutes later, just over half the insects remained at the end containing DEET-treated paper. In contrast, an average of only 25 per cent remained closer to paper treated with the most potent catnip compound, a monoterpene called nepetalactone.

But the benefits don’t stop there the catnip scent turns out to be akin to a natural pheromone, a chemical that female aphids produce in order to attract a mate. The components of the scent are so closely related to chemicals in catnip that it should be possible to use catnip to keep aphids off of your roses and other garden plants susceptible to infestation.  Oh and it also works as an insecticide and microbial inhibitor too!

It can also be made into a tea by just steeping the fresh or dry leaves for 15 minutes or more before pouring out and drinking. This tea has a calming effect on children and adults.

All these amazing benefits from one small plant and that’s even mentioning the fact that cats love catnip! This is because of the nepetalactone it releases when crushed, which stimulates their olfactory (vomeronasal) love receptors, sending many felines into ecstatic raptures.  Nepetalactone closely resembles a chemical found in the urine of female cats and binds to cat olfactory receptors that are involved in sexual stimulation, including those of large wild cats such as cougars and bobcats.  This chemical actually induces orgasmic behaviour followed by a period of resolution. 

This response is genetically determined; and therefore some cats remain unaffected. Which in turn supports the suspicion that nepetalactone is structurally different from the real pheromone. It is not easy to see what selective advantage the plant could gain from stimulating carnivores with what amounts to a recreational drug, and really a cat's response to catnip just amounts to an evolutionary accident. But the benefit to the plant over the past few centuries has been substantial. This little herb that originated in the Mediterranean has been spread around the world by cat lovers, and is now considered a weed by some people in certain areas of North America.

So why not beautify the Inner City areas with catnip and cut the rat problem?  Why not add a few hanging baskets and pots of catnip to your patio and cut the likelihood of getting a mosquito bite while barbecuing or eating outside?  Plant it in and around your roses or tomatoes and cut aphid problems down to size. Grow it and brew it up into tea and gain inner calm without the need for Prozac, but most of all grow it and your cat will love you!

Oh and for those cats who don’t respond to catnip, why not try Valerian or Honeysuckle Wood?


Candy Cat

Left:  A Macro view of the Nepeta subsessilis “Candy Cat” flower


Nepeta x faassenii “Alba”

Left:  A Macro view of the Nepeta x faassenii “Alba” flower


Six Hills02

Left:  A Macro view of the Nepeta sentenisii “Six Hills Giant” flower

Nepeta subsessilis Candy Cat - close up small02
Nepeta x faassenii “Alba”04
Nepeta sentenisii “Six Hills Giant”
Poisonous Plants to Cats

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