Catnip: For People and Cats

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Posted by admin | Posted in catnip | Posted on 24-05-2010

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One of my most useful plants, and one I have to keep in a sealed container in a locked room is catnip (Nepeta cataria). And I don’t care how well I hide it, my “children” seem to find it if I’m in a hurry and don’t put it carefully away. It’s a member of the Labiatae family and answers to a variety of names….catmint, cat’s wort, catnep, catrup, catwort, English catnip, field balm, nep, nip; nepeta cataire, Nept, Cataria, Calaminta, and Nebada.

It is an erect perennial which produces small whitish or pinkish, purple- or red-dotted flowers. The plant is strongly scented with a mintlike odor, rather like pennyroyal. It is native from the eastern Mediterranean region to the western Himalayas, central Asia, southern Siberia and China. It has been introduced in Japan, North America, South Africa and Java. Catnip is grown for extraction of its oil. The lemon oil from catnip is used in perfumes, candies and pharmaceuticals. Nepetalactone is employed to prepare feline attractants, sometimes used on toys for cats. This is similar to the hormone released by felines in heat. It’s cultivated as a medicinal plant, bee pasturage and for use as a condiment.

Catnip is a hardy plant that will grow well almost everywhere from the poorest dry garden soil to rich, deep-shaded woods. It enjoys full sun, but will tolerate partial shade. Soil pH can range between 5 and .5. The plants will become more fragrant when grown in a sandy soil in full sun than in a heavy loam under shade. Frequent shallow cultivation encourages vigorous growth. A field of catnip usually produces for about three years. The flowering tops are the most desirable part of the plant. The plant is easily propagated by seeds, which remain viable for 4 or 5 years and may germinate erratically. They should be sown at a depth of an inch or less, with seedling emergence usually in 8-12 days. Once in place it self-sows. Transplants can also be used as well as root division and stem tip or softwood cuttings. The plants need little attention, except weeding. Pinching the plant at the appearance of the first flower buds produces a bushy plant with superior leaf production. Gather just as it is beginning to bloom, generally in mid-summer. Collect the lower leaves for minimum impact or clip stems. If you choose to gather the stems and upper plant, cut the stem six inches or more above the ground to protect the roots. Dry the herb as soon as possible in a warm, dry, well-ventilated area on a non-metallic screen or cheesecloth. Keep away from sunlight and toss the herb frequently while drying to expedite the process and avoid mold.

The generic name Nepeta is said to have been derived from the town Nepete in Italy where catnip was once cultivated. Catnip was cultivated for cats by the classical Greeks and Romans. Since the Old Kingdom in Egypt (2700-2300BC), catnip has been a symbol of fertility; it was dedicated to the goddesses Bast and Sekhmet, the cat and the lioness. Catnip was believed to help women transform themselves into cats at night. By 1265 it was a familiar herb of kitchen gardens in England. During the early medieval period the leaves and young shoots are known to have been used as a seasoning in the kitchen. In 15th century England, catnip leaves were used for rubbing meats before cooking, and also sprinkled in mixed green salads. Before modern Chinese tea became widely available, catnip tea was frequently consumed in England. In the belief that catnip roots made even the kindest person mean, early American hangmen consumed catnip roots before executions to harden themselves for their work. Catnip growing near houses has long had a reputation for repelling rats, no doubt because it attracts cats.

It has some history as a charm to cure barrenness and may yet be used to bring fertility either to one’s magick or to one’s womb. Catnip is also corresponded with all four Nine cards in tarot’s minor arcane. A mixture of catnip with dragon’s blood is used as an incense to be used to rid one’s self of a behavioral problem or other bad habits. To eliminate a serious defect or stop an alienating addiction, burn dried catnip and bloodroot. Write on a piece of paper the condition you want to get rid of and throw the paper into the fire. At the same time, invoke the name of a protective spirit. If you are seeking a new love, soak catnip in good whiskey overnight, ideally in the light of the Full Moon. Strain it out and sprinkle the liquid on your doorstep for 21 days in the shape of a new crescent moon. As a spell for warriors (in battle or in business), chew on the fresh herb for courage, daring, fierceness and protection

The effect the herb produces on cats includes sniffing, licking and chewing with head shaking, chin and cheek rubbing and body rubbing. Other members of the cat family experience this catnip response which lasts for 15 minutes to an hour. This response has been found to be inherited as an autosomal dominant gene. About one-third of domestic cats do not enjoy the pleasurable effects of catnip. The effects are not achieved by chewing the plant, rather they are induced by smelling the herb, and the plant must be crushed, bruised or broken to release the chemicals responsible for the effect.
This is an excellent herb to consider for a high-strung animal with a nervous stomach, especially if episodes of vomiting are precipitated by stressful events. Administer 12-20 drops of a glycerin-based catnip tincture for every 20 lbs of an animal’s body weight, 10-20 minutes prior to being subjected to stressful circumstances. For travel or other prolonged periods of stress, the tincture can be added to the animal’s drinking water—12 drops per 8 oz of water is a good starting dosage.

Researchers found that nepetalactone, the essential oil in catnip that gives the plant its characteristic odor, is about ten times more effective at repelling mosquitoes than DEET — the compound used in most commercial insect repellents. The study showed that nepetalactone is about 10 times more effective than DEET because it takes about one-tenth as much nepetalactone as DEET to have the same effect. Most commercial insect repellents contain about 5 percent to 25 percent DEET. Presumably, much less catnip oil would be needed in a formulation to have the same level of repellency as a DEET-based repellent. A previous study found that catnip also repels cockroaches.

Tomorrow we’ll cover its medicinal and culinary uses.

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