Though mainly thought of as a feline euphoric, catnip has a rich tradition of folk use. Catnip tea can be used to help support headaches, stomach aches, and colic and sleeplessness in children. The fresh leaves are chewed for headache. It's an old home supportive for colds, nervous tension, fevers and nightmare. It is diaphoretic and antispasmodic. Herbalists use it to allay diarrhea and chronic coughing. Catnip can also be tried to help support anemia, and menstrual and uterine disorders.
The essential oil contains carvacrol, beta-caryophyllene, nepetol, thymol, and nepetalactone.
General Herb Information
Nepeta cataria is the best known of the more than 250 species in its genus. Native to the dry temperate regions of the Mediterranean, inland Europe, Asia, and Africa, catnip is a hardy perennial growing to four feet in height.
The fuzzy grayish leaves are somewhat oval in shape, acute at the tip, heart-shaped at the base, and toothed, and range from one to three inches in length. The flowers occur in tight terminal spikes. Individual flowers are about three-eighths of an inch long, and are white with light purple spots. Flowering begins by the end of May in the South, lasting through late summer in northern climates. This Eurasian native has become naturalized worldwide. A lemon-scented cultivar, 'Citriodora', is available from some plant sources.
Another commonly encountered species in herb gardens is Nepeta mussinii K. Spreng cx. Henckel. This low-growing sprawling perennial reaches to one foot in height. The gray-green leaves look similar to N. cataria but are only an inch long. The flowers are borne on a loose raceme, are about three-eighths of an inch long, and are rich blue. This species has a peculiar pungent citrus-like fragrance and is the showier of the two species. It is often sold under the name catmint, and cats do enjoy it.
Catnip is easily propagated from seeds or root divisions. Seeds can be sown directly in the garden in spring or fall. Root divisions can also be done at either time. Young seedlings should be spaced eighteen to twenty-four inches apart. Established plants will self-sow. Commercial plantings can be expected to produce between 1,500-2,000 pounds per acre.
"If you sow it cats won't know it, if you set it cats will get it" is a bit of folk wisdom the herb gardener will find true more often than not. Plants sown from seeds seem to be left undisturbed by cats until harvested or transplanted. Bruised leaves release essential oils and attract cats.
Catnip thrives in a variety of habitats. I've seen it growing well in the poorest dry garden soils and in rich, deep-shaded woods. It enjoys full sun but will tolerate partial shade. It will thrive in almost any garden soil and become weedy if given the opportunity. Soil pH can range between 5 and 7.5. The plants will become more fragrant when grown in a sandy soil in full sun than in a heavy loam under shade. Frequent shallow cultivation encourages vigorous growth.
The flowering tops are the most desirable part of the plant. Catnip is by weight 60 to 80 percent stem material. Dried catnip available on the herb market is often of inferior quality, being mainly stem chards.
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