Recently I was up in North Carolina and visited the Sarah P. Duke Gardens — one of my favorite places. Strolling down the paths, I was, as usual, testing my knowledge of what grows there (a ridiculous challenge considering their extent — and my limitations). Happily, I identified a patch of mint, only to see it labeled “catmint.” Oh … but not catnip? And that got me to wondering.
Off to research — one of my favorite occupations. Well, I was right: it WAS mint — in the family of Lamiaceae — just not your ordinary run-of-the-mill genus mentha. Catmint is in the same family, but of the genus Nepeta, species mussinii. I tell you that because until recently, catmint was lumped carelessly under the name Nepeta cataria … the name for actual catnip! (Easy to remember: cataria … cats … nevermind.) The difference is important — especially to cats.
So, to consider catnip first. If you are in a planting mood, you must determine your purpose. Are you planting what has been described as “cannabis for cats,” or do you want a pretty ground cover? N. cataria is not all that attractive. It tends to be weedy, growing 2 to 4 feet tall. Cat lovers plant it for their felines. Now, not all cats are affected by catnip, nor are kittens under six weeks old. Those that are have a variety of reactions. Generally speaking, cats that sniff or roll around in the stuff tend toward hyper behavior — they’re the ones you can tease with a catnip toy. They will purr, possibly growl, be entertained, but only about two-thirds of domestic cats are affected. (Lions, leopards, jaguars, cougars, lynxes … may also be affected the same way, but I don’t recommend inviting them to the party). Cats that actually eat the leaves tend to zone out; the organic compound nepetalactone acts as a sedative.
Native to Europe and central Asia, catnip has been used in folk medicine as a remedy for fevers, colds, cramps and migraines and as an antiseptic. You can brew a relaxing cup of catnip tea to relieve anxiety. (I certainly don’t endorse it, having not tried it, and there are possible side effects.) That same essential oil, nepetalactone, repels various insects, and when interspersed with more desirable crops, the plants themselves can even attract beneficial insects.
Catnip is easy to grow. Seed is readily available and so tiny it can be directly sewn onto well-prepared garden soil and covered with 1/8th more soil.
Remember, catnip can be invasive in your garden. To harvest in early to mid–summer, strip the leaves and dry for several weeks on a screen, then crumble and package in a sealed container. Your cats will thank you.
Your garden will thank you for planting N. messinii, catmint. Varieties rarely stimulate cats, but many are low-growing mounded plants with attractive gray-green foliage and a profusion of blue or lavender flowers in loose spikes. The leaves are aromatic. Heat and drought resistant in zones 5-9 and grown in sun, catmint actually comes in a variety of sizes. “Walker’s Low” turns out to be a tall 3 feet, “Blue Wonder” relatively diminutive at 12-15 inches. Even smaller is “Little Trudy” at 8-10 inches. If any become leggy, you can shear them back — you might even get a second flush of bloom.
Preferred perennial border plants, many varieties of catmint self-seed (watch out for that, of course). They thrive in poor soil, including clay! Butterflies love them, as do bees. For the most part, N. messinii is ignored by both deer and rabbits. And cats. You will spare yourself a window view of felines rioting in the yard or sleeping off the results of snacking.