PLANT OF THE WEEK

Dr. T. Ombrello - UCC Biology Department

 

CATNIP

 

Common names:             

Catnip, Catnep, Catmint, Catrup, Catswort

 

Scientific name:              Nepeta Cataria

 

Explanation of scientific name:       

Nepeta  - from Nepete, a city in Etruria, which was an ancient country in central Italy now forming parts of Tuscany and Umbria.

Cataria  - an old generic name for Catnip.  The name Cataria is from the Latin “catari”, meaning of a cat.

 

Catnip foliage. Catnip flowers are quite small.

The Catnip plant is undoubtedly best known for its effect on all members of the Cat family.  All felines, from the wild mountain lion to the domestic tabby, are attracted to this species with results that are often strange and hilarious.  The stems and leaves of Catnip are lemony-mint scented, and generally invoke little interest on the part of humans and most other animals.  Bees seem to prefer its flowers over most others, but a common plant pest in gardens, the flea beetle, is deterred by it.  Rats are known to be repelled by it.  Cats, however, rub against Catnip as though trying to coat themselves, roll on it, toss it about, and rub their faces in it.  If fresh, many cats will often consume the leaves.  Catnip is commonly used as a stuffing for cat playthings, and is claimed by some to be a feline aphrodisiac.  The universal appeal of this species to cats is underscored by the fact that the herb’s common name in every Western language contains some variation of the word “cat”.  

Cats have the amazing ability to find Catnip plants, which they locate by homing in on the volatile oil that is expressed from bruised or dried plants.  What the cats are actually fond of is a component of the oil called nepetalactone, (5,6,7,7a-Tetrahydro-4, 7-dimethylcyclopenta[C] pyran-1-(4aH)-one), a relatively small organic compound (C10H14O2).

Individuals interested in cultivating Catnip are advised to sow the seeds directly into the garden and be especially careful not to injure developing plants (releasing the volatile oil) or the neighborhood cats will destroy the crop.  The following bit of English folklore says it all.

If you set it, the cats will eat it.    If you sow it, the cats won’t know it.  

Native to Eurasia, Catnip has been transported around the world by people and has become naturalized in many areas, including the United States.  This perennial herb is a member of the Mint family of plants (Lamiaceae) and is very closely related to Spearmint and Peppermint.  The plant can reach 3 feet in height and is readily distinguished by its hairy, gray colored leaves and stems.  The plant blooms in the summer with clusters of 3/8-inch flowers at the tips of the shoots.  The blossoms are 2-lipped with white and purple spotted petals.

Besides being grown for the enjoyment of pet cats, Catnip has a history of use as a beverage and a medicine.  Before European trade with China began bringing large quantities of fine Eastern Tea to Europe, Catnip tea was a domestic favorite especially among tea loving residents of the British Isles.  When growing the plant for this purpose, mature leaves should be collected while they are still fresh and dried in the shade (not in the sun, or the volatile oil will be lost) for several days.  One teaspoon of the dried herb is then added to each cup of boiling water and allowed to steep.  The tea should not be boiled or, again, the oil will be lost.  The drink is an excellent source of vitamin C.  

The number of various uses of Catnip tea for medicinal purposes is extraordinary.  A survey of the literature indicates that it has been used at one time or another to cure just about every human disorder.  Some of its more popular uses in Europe would include curing chronic bronchitis, diarrhea, upset stomachs, infant colic, flatulency, spasms, and “various lower type female disorders”.  The tea is said to induce perspiration and has been used to break fevers, bring on sleep, and to cool a person down on a hot summer day.  

A use has even been found for the roots of Catnip.  According to English folklore, the root of Catnip:  

            “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.”