Catnip (nepeta cataria) is a minty plant that most cats love. Cats eat it, roll in it, rub their face on it, or sleep on it. It makes many cats playful and skittish. Rolling on the plant, or crushing it by chewing, releases Nepetalactone which cats find stimulating. It's absorbed through the cat's nose & acts like pheromones. Some cats play like a kitten for a while, others become aggressive, hitting their owners with their paw, or hissing. The behaviour change lasts 5 to 15 minutes. The cats soon return to normal. They will not eat any more catnip for at least an hour, and may ignore the plant for the rest of the day.
Kittens and old cats are not interested in catnip. Many cats never take any interest in it, but generally cats love it.
The plant resembles wild stinging nettles. It has a square stem and and heart-shaped leaves with a serrated edge. The leaves grow opposite each other. There are many varieties & names: Catnip, True Catnip, Catmint, Field Balm, nepeta grandiflora (Giant Catmint or Caucasus Catmint) catnep, catwort. The leaves can be grey-green, dark or light green. The flowers can be white, lavender or purple. Most varieties are perennial, meaning it comes up every year, but some are annual. Perennials die down in the winter and send up new shoots in spring.
Clusters of tiny flowers form at the tips of the stems and seeds scatter around. These seedlings will spring to life after spring rains and, if kept moist, will produce more plants.
The leaves and flowers can be cut off in summer and dried for winter use.
How to grow catnip
Catnip grows well in South Africa as long as it is kept watered. It's best to start with plants from a nursery. Buy at least two, in case your cat destroys one! Nepeta Cataria is the one that cats like. It's no use buying the ornamental varieties.
Height: 45 - 90 cms (18 - 36")
Space: 30 - 45 cms (12 - 18") apart. The plant grows tall but it can fall over and lie on the ground.
Plant in sunny or partly shady spot in well-drained soil, which must be kept watered. Wilting plants can often be revived by a drink of cold water. Catnip can be grown in a large flower pot. It will grow indoors on a sunny windowsill, but some people don't like the smell.
Alternatively, grow from seed in the spring. Plant in a shallow tray of soil and keep moist. Protect the baby plants from cats by covering the ground with bird wire mesh or wire waste paper bins upside down. Plant out when the plant has leaves and is outgrowing the seed tray. Planting against a fence can help to prevent the cat from lying on the plant. Once you have LOTS of plants, you can afford to let cats destroy them.
When you have some strong shoots, nip off the tip of each stalk. This will encourage the plant to grow bushier.
Cut a few stalks when the weather is dry. Don't cut the whole plant. Hang upside down in a dry place out of the reach of cats, until withered. Crush the plants in a plastic or paper bag. Throw away the stems. Put the stems on a path so that walking on them released the last fragrance, if you wish. Keep the packets of dry catnip where cats can't reach them. Store them in an airtight tin if possible. The dry stuff can be used to stuff cat toys. It can also be dried in a slow oven.
Humans sometimes make a catnip tea by putting a teaspoonful of chopped or torn up leaves in a cup and adding hot water. Leave to stand for at least 5 minutes. The tea can be drunk hot or cold. Add honey or sugar to taste. This herbal tea is said to have calming properties.
Catnip oil is used to repel mosquitoes, cockroaches & termites. The oil is obtained by steam distillation.
Strong catnip tea can be sprinkled over carpets and dog bedding to repel fleas. It could be that the fleas don't like the smell. It's unlikely to kill fleas on your pet though. Ask your vet for a remedy.
Catnip is said to have medicinal properties. It can be added to a bath to help skin trouble. It can be drank as a tea to reduce fever or to calm a fractious child.
You can make a catnip mouse yourself using soft material like flannelette. Stand a tin on the cloth & cut round it. Fold the circle in half. Sew the edges together leaving a space for stuffing. Turn inside out to hide the raw edges. Stuff with dried catnip & sew up the hole. Sew on a strand of knitting yarn for a tail. Mark nose, eyes & whiskers with a magic marker. Your cat won't complain if it's not perfect.