Catnip: It’s Not Just for Cats

This mint family plant may make cats go wild, but it will also ease your tired, overworked muscles.

by Dawn Combs
PHOTO: Isabelle Blanchemain/Flickr

This week, as I Iooked out the window at all the lush growth in my flower beds I was depressed. After all the rain we’ve had, things were a bit out of control out there, and I thought I was never going to catch up. I shouldn’t have worried. In just one day this weekend I weeded all the way around the house. Now, I’ve just got to get the mulching done.

We like to think spring is about flowers and showers. For me, spring is about weeding and sunburn. My husband wonders when I’ll learn my lesson. The problem is I get outside for the first day of good weather, and I can’t stop with just one bed. Inevitably, I start working amongst my flowers at first light and look up to see the sun going down.

I am so satisfied by weeding. There is something that affects my soul in a neat and tidy flower bed. Unfortunately, my weeding is not entirely stress-free. My concept of “weed” is much more fuzzy than it is for the average gardener. My kitchen herb garden was especially difficult for me this year. While others have a carpet of small flowers as a ground cover, I have catnip (Nepeta cataria). Catnip is a plant that we work hard to grow in other areas of the farm. It is an important crop for our herb business, so it is very difficult to view it as a weed even when it is making a nuisance of itself. I wound up leaving a good deal of the plant throughout the bed and only pulled those specimens that were encroaching on my chives and bergamot.

Don’t Judge Catnip by Its Name

Catnip is so important to us, yet it is often overlooked. To many, this is a plant we find in a dried bag or stuffed mouse in a pet store. It’s a treat grown specifically for the family cat. We certainly share ours with the cats who live on our farm and perform mouser duties, but our main focus is its use for humans.

Customers who visit our farm and see that we are selling catnip tea are often puzzled. I’m sure they envision that drinking the tea will cause them to roll on the floor, become overly aggressive or amorous, and run from room to room as if invisible birds are chasing them. Cats and humans react very differently to the chief volatile oil, nepetalactone, found in the plant.

The compound is very similar to the oils found in valerian (Valeriana officinalis), which also drives cats wild. In humans, both plants serve as a relaxant. Catnip tea is a favorite for any kind of colic in both children or adults. It’s often used to relax the muscles of a hiatal hernia, and it is specific in the case of fever. Folklore on the plant tells us that it helps release the tension that balls up in our stomach from words we aren’t able to say or emotions we can’t express.

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Growing Catnip

Catnip is easy to grow from seed or plant. It’s said that if you put seeds out you will have less damage from neighborhood cats, so it’s worth a try. Seeds germinate easily. I have seen catnip be successful in just about any kind of soil and any sun exposure, though I’ve found it to be happiest in partial sun.

As I weeded this weekend, I made sure that nothing went to waste. I set aside a pile of catnip to take inside for an evening tea. Catnip is just the thing to sip while taking an epsom-salt bath after you’ve overdone it in the garden. It is perfect for relaxing muscles that have been over-exerted. For the sunburn, I’ll have to work on with another plant—perhaps one for memory, so I don’t repeat the mistake again next year.

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