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Catnip Plants or Catmint (Nepeta Cataria)

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My picture shows catnip plant's leaves. This mint family member is aggressive.

Picture of catnip plant's leaves.

David Beaulieu

Taxonomy of Catnip Plants:

Plant taxonomy classifies catnip plants or "catmint" as Nepeta cataria. Note that the common names, "catnip" and "catmint" (chiefly British) are sometimes used interchangeably, as I use them on this page. However, some prefer a more restrictive usage, whereby "catmint" is reserved for a different member of the same family, namely, Nepeta mussinii. Where I refer to the latter, I employ the scientific name, in order to avoid confusion with the subject of this page, which is Nepeta cataria.

Plant Type:

Nepeta cataria plants are classified as herbaceous perennial herbs. Catnip plants have naturalized in parts of North America. Even where they are not perennial they may reseed.

Characteristics of Catnip Plants:

Catnip plants can attain a size of 3' x 3'. Their small, white or lilac flowers (see picture) grow in clusters. The stems of these fragrant plants have the squarish shape typical of the mint family, whether herb or weed (creeping charlie, for instance). Catnip plants enjoy sun and are drought-tolerant ground covers, making them good candidates for sunny, dry areas where many other flowers would struggle. Nepeta cataria is the preferred herb to grow for cat-lovers; fewer cats are attracted to Nepeta mussinii.

Planting Zones for Catnip Plants:

Catnip plants can be grown in planting zones 3-9.

Sun and Soil Requirements for Catnip Plants:

Grow catnip plants in full sun to partial shade. Like so many herbs, this perennial thrives in poor soil that is well-drained. Catnip plants like a slightly alkaline soil.

Care for Catnip Plants: Pinching and Drying:

Unless you can tolerate damage, protect Nepeta cataria from cats by, e.g., fencing it off. Pinch them often while they're growing, to obtain dense, well-shaped plants. Harvest upon flowering, on a dry, sunny day. Late morning is a good time to harvest -- after the dew has dried but before the day heats up. Cut off the whole plant at the base and hang it upside down as soon as possible in a dark, dry, well-ventilated place (e.g., an attic) to minimize loss of volatile oil.

Uses for Catnip Plants in Landscaping:

The catnip plants I discuss here (Nepeta cataria) are used primarily in landscaping for cats. As part of the "cat-friendly yard," grow them for your cats to enjoy outdoors or harvest them for drying. But if you're more concerned with your landscape design than with your cats, grow Nepeta mussinii, instead. The latter is a more attractive herb, as it stays shorter (1'). Nepeta mussinii has a spreading habit and is used as a groundcover. Both Nepeta mussinii and Nepeta cataria are deer-resistant.

Caveat in Growing Catnip Plants:

Catnip plants may be considered invasive plants.

Catnip Plants: Medicinal and Culinary Uses, Psychoactive Properties:

Catnip plants are not just for cats: like so many herbs, they also have culinary and medicinal uses, whether used fresh or dried. Tea made from the leaves and flowers of this herbaceous perennial has traditionally been imbibed to relieve coughs, for instance. The leaves and shoots can be used as ingredients in sauces and soups. The oil extracted from catnip plants is even used in natural mosquito repellents. Store dried leaves and flowers in freezer bags to preserve the potency of the oil.

These uses notwithstanding, what most people are interested in are the psychoactive properties demonstrated by catnip plants when their fragrance is inhaled by cats. The resulting "trip" comes courtesy of a chemical named "nepetalactone." The impact is not the same on all cats; only some are sensitive to nepetalactone. According to HowStuffWorks.com, "The catnip reaction is inherited, and some cats are totally unaffected by it. Large cats like tigers can be sensitive to it as well."


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