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Catnip and the Catmint Family: Grow a Stash for You and Your Cat

Catnip and the Catmint Family: Grow a Stash for You and Your Cat

You might have a pretty solid position on the legalization of recreational drugs, regardless of your high school and college misadventures. Todays social and political climate has made some herbs legal but imagine for a moment if one popular herb—catnip—suddenly became contraband. 

  • Interstate corridors might become overrun with felines driving the speed limit, trying to look as inconspicuous as a driving cat possibly can while transporting catnip to feline gangs everywhere. 
  • Bright lights would suddenly appear from inside foil-lined, domed catboxes in homes across the nation, as kitties build their own hydroponic grow operations. Your suspicions are confirmed when your electricity bill spikes. 
  • Quaint Northern California towns begin reporting an influx of seemingly stray cats during the traditional "trimming season". 
  • The family pooch, who seems to have somehow procured a doggy backpack, might take off for days at a time, returning home with improved fluency in Spanish slang and more cash than a dog should have. 

Rather than risk your household's sanity and legal fund (you do have one, don't you? Because you never know) perhaps its time to stockpile your cat's own catnip supply. 

While you're at it, take a look at catnip's cousins for a boost to your own health and happiness. 

What  Is This Stuff?

Catnip ( Nepeta cataria ) is a more aromatically potent but less showy member of the catmint family, but all have a history of culinary or medicinal use by humans. While U.K gardeners interchange the terms "catnip" and "catmint" when referencing  Nepeta cataria, we on this side of the Atlantic prefer to differentiate between different varieties of the genus. 

All catmints are herbaceous perennials with a deep taproot. Like old-school ditch weed, catmints do well in poorer soils with low to moderate moisture. Native to Europe, Africa, and Asia, catmint has naturalized in North America, and often pops up in vacant lots, along country roads, and below the windows of high school shop classes. 

Like other members of the mint family ( Lamiaceae) which includes thyme and sage, catmint is a mounding herb that grows in long, upright, square stems. Serrated, hair covered, arrowhead-shaped, vivid green leaves grow along the stems in alternating pairs, and dense clusters of two-inch white, blue or lavender flowers bloom from June through October.  

Catmint attracts honey bees and other pollinating insects, and some gardeners report seeing hummingbirds visiting catmint flowers.

Catmints do well in USDA zones 4-10, but can be grown as an annual elsewhere or an indoor perennial if given a nice sunny windowsill. 

They prefer full sun but do very well in partial shade, and their tolerance for drought—even more so than other mints—makes them good candidates for the far corners of your garden. 

Catmint sizes depend upon variety and growing conditions. The showy  Nepeta mussinii can grow 24-36" tall and about 12"-30" inches wide, while catnip grows 18-24 inches. 

All catmints can be "trained" to maintain a more compact, bushy shape by pinching off upper stems and leaf buds. This is the preferred method for harvesting fresh leaves from all catmint varieties, and for maintaining the appropriate plant size for indoor potted catnip. 

Why Does My Cat Jones for Catnip? 

Have you ever wondered why catnip is so appealing to our pets, or how its compounds work to make them so...blotto? The truth is, catnip doesn't make your cat high. It contains a pheromone-mimicking molecule called  nepetalactone

Pheromones, as you probably know, interact with the olfactory system to help people and critters alike bond and fall in love. When catnip emits nepetalactone, it's pretty much making your cat experience the euphoria of affection. 

So now you have to ask...what's worse? Withdrawals from drug dependency, or heartache? 

OK, we don't know if cats experience a sense of loss when their supply is suddenly cut off, but we do know that catnip is safe, and your cat or kitten won't overdose from consuming too much nepetalactone in its natural state. 

Medicinal Uses

As previously mentioned, catnip is known for its aroma and attractiveness to cats. Other catmints, such as  Nepeta mussiniiare valued for their spectacular summer-long blooms but don't have the same allure among felines.  Nepeta mussinii leaves, when dried, do make a calming herbal tea, useful for when your cat has walked across your keyboard for the fifteenth time in a day. On the other hand, catmints have a reputation for lending courage, possibly by calming the nerves. 

So...the next time your cat leaves a disemboweled mouse on your rug, go right on ahead and make yourself a nice hot cup of catnip or catmint tea before you deal with the mess. 

The root when chewed is said to make the most gentle person fierce and quarrelsome, and there is a legend of a certain hangman who could never screw up his courage to the point of hanging anybody till he had partaken of it. —Frances Bardswell,  The Herb Garden

Known as both an edible and an aromatic, leaves and flower clusters harvested from catmint tops were England's favorite hot beverage before  Camellia sinensis, or common "tea", took over in the Elizabethan era.  Catmint boasts a long history treating the following: 

  • childhood colic
  • pneumonia and congestion
  • coughs
  • colds
  • fevers
  • anxiety
  • insomnia
  • headaches
  • toothaches (when chewed)
  • menstrual pain 

According to research gathered by medical herbalist  Richard Whelan, some studies have found that compounds found in catmints are effective in inhibiting up to 44 strains of  Staphylococcus aureus. His website links to a comprehensive list of research conducted on catmint, as well as his own experiences and observations using catmint as a medicinal herb. 

Catmint's Culinary Uses

For People: 

Catmint has a minty, lemony taste that can be a little bitter. Some have reported a smoky accent to catmint's flavor. It seems to pair well with oregano and lemon for a Mediterranean flavor. 

  • Marinating herb for meat
  • Garnish for iced beverages
  • Tuscan seasoning for porcini mushrooms and artichokes
  • Steep with honey and hot (not boiling) water for a relaxing hot tea. Use 6 ounces water to 1 teaspoon dried leaves (1 tablespoon for fresh).

For Cats: 

  • Steep catmint in warm water or low-sodium broth to encourage liquid and nutrient intake while reducing stress. Traveling with your cat? Pack along this "cat tea" for road trips!
  • Keep dried catnip leaves in the refrigerator in an airtight container. Re-stuff and refresh catnip toys, or feed it "straight up" by sprinkling it on cat furniture or the floor.
  • Catnip cookies and other baked cat treats. (Baked as in the treats...not the cat.)

The Herbal Mouser, Pest Repellent, and Companion Plant

  • Catmint's aroma is thought to repel rodents. Try using catmint as a border plant, near outbuildings or around foundations. 
  • Not only is catmint resistant to deer, it tends to repel them. Rabbits and voles, too!
  • Since all catmints attract cats (with catnip being the paws-down favorite) the herb has been used to attract feral cats to aid in rodent and insect control. Of course, you'll need to consider that cats love to visit gardens for other, less hygienic reasons as well, so weigh the pros and cons accordingly. 
  • Joyful Homesteading  recommends an infusion of catmint and garlic as a spray to repel ants, rust, mealie bugs, and aphids. 
  • Catmint gets along with many ornamental garden plants, but roses are its most common partner thanks to its aphid-repelling qualities. 
  • Since catmint is a substitute for lavender in ornamental gardens in areas where lavender doesn't thrive, they share similar roles in aesthetic design. 

How Do I Grow Catmint? 

Members of the catmint family are among the easier perennials to cultivate. No need for expensive hydroponic systems with these plants; we've already told you how well they'll do in low-water gardens with little coddling after they're established. In many areas, catmints are so hardy and prolific that they're considered a weed. Just not... that weed. 

Soil preparation: "Too much of a good thing" is definitely true for catmints. when preparing your outdoor garden spot, cultivate the area with just enough compost to offset compacted, depleted or clay soil. Houseplant potting mixes are fine for plants you intend to keep indoors on a windowsill for your cat to enjoy since potted plants tend to require a bit more nutrition and water retention. 

Wherever you plan to grow catmint, make sure the soil drains well and that the roots don't get too much water. Catmints have a deep taproot and prefer their soil to dry out in between watering. 

Seeding: Catmint seeds need sunlight to germinate. Press seeds into the soil surface 12" apart, and leave them uncovered. Keep the soil moist (we recommend a spray bottle or low-pressure fine mist hose nozzle) until germination in roughly 5-10 days. 

Maintenance: Once the third set of leaves begins to emerge, you can pinch them off to encourage a more compact plant. If you're growing catnip indoors, you may want to pinch off any flower buds, allowing the plant to focus its energy toward foliage production.

For ornamental varieties, deadhead spent flowers to encourage new blooms, and while you don't need to divide the roots of this perennial to maintain health, you can divide them in their second spring to reduce crowding, make new plants or to give to friends. 

Catmint will regrow from its root system each spring and handles severe cutting back very well early in the growing season. 

Pests and Disease: Most hairy-leafed plants tend to fend off insects and slugs, and hardy catmints are no exception. In fact, the plant's aroma is known to repel harmful insects while attracting pollinators.

Avoid root rot caused by overwatering, especially in high-density plantings. Pick and discard any leaves that appear to show leaf spot. 

The Best Weed Comes From the Best Seed

Whether you're enabling your cat's fancy with catnip or brightening up your menu, herbal medicine chest and your garden with catmint, trust us to help you get your best start. Seed Needs selects the freshest seeds from the healthiest stock, increasing germination rates and vigorous seedlings. Check out our wide variety of vegetable, herbal and ornamental seeds, and don't forget to bookmark our gardening blog for growing tips and recipes! 

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