Catnip is almost legendary for its cat-distracting and attracting powers, but thinking of it only in that context will make you miss out on the other uses of this attractive herb.
Catnip is a perennial herb that is a member of the mint family; it is also commonly referred to as catmint or catswort. It grows between 1 and 4 feet high, depending on growing conditions, usually reaching around 2-3 feet high by 3 feet wide.
The flowers are small and don't have much scent. They are white or lavender colored, tubular in shape with two lobes, and grow on spires. The stems of the catnip plant are square, like those of the other members of the mint family. The leaves grow up to 3 inches long, and are heart-shaped, with serrated edges and faint fuzz covering them, and have a pleasant smell rather like oregano and thyme combined. The root system forms into rhizomes.
Catnip originally grew widely, spreading across Europe to the Middle East as far as China. It has also naturalized over large portions of the United States.
Catnip is a hardy plant that prefers to grow in full sun or partial shade. To make the plant grow compactly and densely, rather than out into a few long, spindly branches, pinch it off regularly as it grows.
You can harvest catnip once it flowers; it is best to have a dry, sunny day. Catnip blooms from late spring until the fall. You can trim fresh leaves to use the entire warm season. You can also harvest branches and leaves and dry them for year-round use. To dry, either place in oven on very low heat until thoroughly dried (leaves will crumble easily), or hand bunches upside down in a dry, well-ventilated place until thoroughly dried. Store in an airtight container in a cool, dry place.
If there are cats in your neighborhood, protect it from being loved to death by fencing it off. Most cats (67% of them) respond to catnip plants by rubbing on them, rolling in them, batting at them with their paws, and chewing or licking at them. If you want your outdoor plants to be healthy, protect them.
Catnip attracts honeybees and butterflies, bringing into your garden both pollinators both beneficial and beautiful. The plants are lovely and make beautifully scented edgings in your garden.
The oils in catnip deter garden pests like aphids and squash bugs, and it can attract lacewings, which eat even more pests. Oils containing nepetalactone, distilled from catnip, can be used as a mosquito deterrent, and may also discourage termites and cockroaches. Rats and mice tend to avoid catnip as well.
As the name suggests, catnip is attractive to cats ranging from small housecats up to cougars; even some lions and tigers respond to catnip, though less reliably. Interestingly, the chemical that makes it attractive to cats, nepetalactone, is the one that deters pests. Cats enjoy playing with the plants, and dried leaves and flowers are often sewed up into cat toys to encourage them to play with the toy.
Cats that have eaten catnip may act sleepy, purr, drool or get anxious and hyper for up to 15 minutes.
Catnip has been used in many forms in traditional medicinals, including tea, poultice, and juice. It is used both as a sedative and a stimulant, depending on preparation. It has been used to sooth the stomach, treat colds and fever, to ease headaches, and to cool bruises. It has astringent and cooling properties and can be gentle on the skin and make an effective footbath.
Tea made with catnip is tasty and has sedative properties; drinking some in the evening can help you sleep easier. It is also good to sooth coughs, especially with a touch of honey.
Clean, crushed leaves can be used as a poultice to small cuts and scrapes; the antiseptic properties will help them heal better, and they help ease discomfort.
The sprouts and leaves are tasty in salads. They can also be used to season meats, soups, and sauces.
Catnip is a useful and lovely plant that is a valuable addition to any garden!