by Marilyn Odneal, Horticulture Adviser
(Mountain Grove) – I don’t know what it is about catnip, but cats go crazy for it. Mine mostly roll around after chewing or sniffing a bit of nip. Whether they are in the house or out by the barn, two-thirds of domestic breeds of cats are affected by catnip. So what is it that is so attractive to cats?
Native to Europe, catnip, Nepeta cataria, is a member of the mint plant family. You can tell a mint family member by the square stem. Catnip is a perennial herb that grows up to 3 feet tall. The leaves are elongated heart-shaped, toothed, and covered with gray hair. The clusters of white or pale lavender tubular flowers bloom from July to September. The active chemical in catnip is nepetalactone (a component of oil extracted from catnip). Cats respond to the odor of this oil.
Researchers at Iowa State University have patented nepetalactone as a repellent for cockroaches, mosquitoes, mites, ticks, spiders, termites and other insects. In fact, nepetalactone is about 10 times more effective in repelling mosquitoes than most commercial repellants on the market.
Catnip also shows promise as a companion plant that will deter insects from crop plants. Catnip planted in alternate rows with collard greens reduced the damage caused by flea beetles. Catnip extracts are not effective against caterpillars or moths and butterflies, but have been used to deter deer, rabbits and squirrels.
Not only is catnip the cat’s meow, it is also used in herbal remedies for humans. Its leaves have been chewed as a remedy for toothaches. Teas made of catnip are said to calm the digestive system, relieve insomnia and prevent nightmares. The plant is also used to make a light yellow dye.
Catnip is easily propagated by seed, but I have learned the hard way not to put seedlings out too soon. The small seedlings were soon devoured by Rikkita the cat (aka Kitty). Luckily, I have held several plants back and will let them grow large enough to become Kitty-proof before I put them out again.
To harvest catnip for tea or for cat toys, cut the stems before they flower (early to mid summer) and remove the leaves from the stems. There are several methods to dry them including air, oven, dehydrator and microwave. Just follow herb drying recommendations for whichever method you choose.
So do your feline friends a favor and plant some catnip. It will keep your cats happy and will afford you a nice calming cup of tea and maybe even a relaxing catnap.
Direct comments or questions concerning this column to Marilyn Odneal via email at MarilynOdneal@missouristate.edu; write to Missouri State Fruit Experiment Station, 9740 Red Spring Road, Mountain Grove, Mo. 65711; or call (417) 547-7500. Visit our Web site at http://mtngrv.missouristate.edu.