Trowel & Error

Feline groovy

Easy-to-grow catnip has many uses

By Nancy Crowe
One by one, the cats slink into the church basement, seeking not church mice but support.

“My name is Fluffy, and I’m a nepetalactonoholic,” the first will say, slowly swishing her tail.

“Hi, Fluffy!” they chorus.

Fluffy sighs. “It all started with that first catnip mouse. I was hooked.”

The others, all with their own variations on the theme, blink sympathetically or coolly groom their front paws.

Nepetalactone is the aromatically intoxicating essential oil in catnip, a perennial herb known botanically as Nepeta cataria. Cats play with it, rub it or roll in it, bruising the foliage to release the fragrance. Some cats become playful, some go tearing and thundering around the house like wild beasts of the jungle and some aren’t affected. Genetics may play a role, but we’ll leave any “nature or nurture” questions for another day.

Despite the earlier dramatization, and with all respect to the honest and hard work of recovery, catnip is generally not considered to be harmful or addictive to cats. If they ingest too much of it, digestive problems can occur, but catnip is all about the aroma. The Purdue vet school’s plant database even quips that catnip can be considered a legal recreational drug for cats. Pet supply retailers sell it in flake or pellet form.

There’s more to catnip than feline fun, however. Researchers at Iowa State University discovered some years ago that nepetalactone is about 10 times more effective at keeping away mosquitoes than DEET, the compound used in most commercial repellents. A USDA study also found that termites were not likely to tunnel under soil in which catnip grows, which may be why the plant is often seen around the foundations of old European homes and barns. That and the fact that mint is virtually unstoppable, even by the most formidable British gardener.

Whether you buy seeds or established plants, catnip is pretty easy to grow. It likes full sun; growing it indoors never worked for me until I tried it using a hydroponic system with its own lighting. Then we had abundant fresh catnip in the dead of winter. I kept cutting, and it kept growing.

Left to flower, catnip produces a mass of small lavender or blue blooms. If you’re growing it for feline enjoyment, you want the plant to direct its energy into the leaves, so pinch off the flowers. The leaves can be used fresh or dried. I grew catnip for years in a container on our deck; it came back every spring. When I wasn’t diligent about pinching off the flowers, it also turned up in neighboring containers, under the bushes beside the deck and even in the rocky area where the hose is kept.

When brewed as a tea, catnip is thought to have calming effect; some nighttime blends include it along with chamomile and other relaxing herbs. I discovered this when our cat took an unusually keen interest in my tea one evening, and no, she didn’t get her own cup. She prefers to have fresh catnip leaves rubbed on her favorite toy, a purple spider. She’ll bunny-kick and bat that spider around until one of them ends up under a chair. Then it’s time to rest up for the next round.

So no worries — most cats know when to say when and can use catnip with adequate human supervision. To be safe, don’t let them near any tattoo parlors until they’ve slept it off.

Nancy Crowe

Posted Fri, 12/30/2011 - 9:14 am