Human Uses of Catnip
What is Catnip
Catnip (Nepeta cataria), catmint, catnep, is a hardy perennial herb of the mint family (Labiatae).
Distribution of Catnip
Catnip originated in Europe and parts of Asia, and was planted by settlers in colonial gardens in North America. Catnip escaped to the wild and is common across Canada and the U.S. Catnip is cultivated mainly in the Pacific Northwest and parts of Canada, particularly in Alberta and British Columbia.
Effect on Cats
Most species of the cat family (Felidae) are attracted to catnip. The cats roll in the catnip, rub their face, and eventually eat it.The oil from catnip leaves contains a chemical called trans-neptalactone, which closely resembles a substance present in a female cat's urine.
Wee kittens do not like catnip until they are about 3 months old. The sensitivity is inherited: A kitten with only one catnip-sensitive parent has a one-in-two chance of inheriting the catnip sensitivity, and a kitten whose parents both exhibit sensitivity has a three-in-four chance. There is no correlation between catnip sensitivity and sex, colour, or breed.
Active Ingredients of Catnip
Nepetalactone is one of several related compounds known to initiate the classic catnip response.
Catnip essential oil containing mostly Nepetalactone, but also citral, geraniol, citronellol, nerol, thymol and limonene, is extracted by steam distillation.
I tried distilling catnip oil and it worked quite well. Here is a link to my Distilling experiment.
Because nepetalactone is volatile catnip will lose it's effect over time. It should be stored in a closed container preferably in a cool place.
Are any Other Plants Similar to Catnip?
Actinidine, a similar compound is found in valerian and in silver vine (Actinidia polygama). Iridomyrmecin is also found in silver vine. Dihydroactinidiolide occurs naturally in black tea, fenugreek, fire ants, mangos, silver vine. Silver vine is widely sold in Japan where the kitties can enjoy either the fresh plant, or little sticks of silver vine.
What is Catnip used For in Humans?
Medicinal Uses of Catnip
There is very little research available on catnip so there is little formal evidence that it works. But it has been used for an astonishing number of ailments.
One use that everyone agrees on, is it's mild sedative properties. It is used everywhere catnip is found as a relaxing and soothing tea. This is probably it's main claim to fame. Valerian which contains similar active ingredients, is often included in herbal sleep potions. Valerian as an ingredient looks a lot more convincing that Catnip because of its rather strong odor and higher price, but the effects are probably just about the same using catnip, and much cheaper.
Because it is soothing and relaxing (antispasmodic) it is also used for digestive upsets (nervous dyspepsia) where the main cause is tension. In that context catnip is recommended for muscular pain, cramps, colic in babies, spasms and tics and stomach pains. It is also helpful in headache where tension is mainly responsible.
Catnip's soothing effect is also useful in reducing menstrual pain.
It has mild anesthetic properties (try it by chewing a leaf, or just bruising a leaf in your mouth, it will feel mildly numb) and has been used for tooth and gum aches.
Although it is mostly used as tea and poultice, it was sometimes smoked for asthma. There is no evidence that it works. It was also smoked by hopeful hippies as a mild hallucinogenic.
It has been used as a mild antibiotic. As a poultice, it is said to help heal and prevent infection. It also has anti fungal properties. An in vitro (not clinical) research project showed that an extract of catnip was active against Staphylococcus aureus and some fungi. Here is a link to the abstract. "The effect of Nepeta cataria extract on adherence and enzyme production of Staphylococcus aureus."
Recent research has suggested that it does help reduce fever.
It is claimed that it is diuretic, and reduces gas (carminative). Furthermore it has been used to treat colds, upper respiratory affections, particularly where there is a feeling of congestion the airways, sinuses or middle ear.
Catnip in large doses has been observed to be emetic (makes you vomit).
It's been recommended for a number of "female ailments" helping the onset of late menstruation (used in tincture form). Pregnant women should avoid catnip as a precaution only since there is no evidence that it is harmful
In the folklore, Catnip root is said to have the opposite effect than the stem and leaves. It is supposed to make a normally placid human, aggressive and bloodthirsty.
None of these claims have been demonstrated in formal research except for the mosquito repellent quality, and the anti-fungal anti-staph qualities. There is probably enough experience to accept that it is calming.
Other non Medicinal uses of Catnip
Thymol extracted from catnip has been shown to be fungicide.
It can also be used as an aromatic herb in cooking & salads. It was drunk in England as a tea before Chinese tea was available.
Some people have used it as a meat tenderizer.
A light yellow dye can be made from Catnip. There are countless recipes for herbal hair dye and some include catnip.
Catnip has been used as an ingredient of love potions or as part of bonding rituals. It is said that any leaf used during the ceremony must be carefully kept otherwise the spell will break!
Toxicity of Catnip
This is a short entry. There are no reported cases of harm done by ingesting catnip. Occasionally a cat will puke and that's about it. Large quantities might make some people vomit as well. Catnip oil, like other concentrated essential oil, is much stronger, and while it has not been tested for toxicity, should not be ingested.
How to grow Catnip
There are many varieties of catnip available. Some are prettier and tend to be called cat mint. They all attract cats and have human soothing qualities in varying degrees.
Once established catnip is very hardy and will come back every year. It might in fact spread so if you don't want a lot of catnip spreading, don't let it go to seed. Alternatively go on a search and destroy mission occasionally.
Catnip is very forgiving in its requirements. It prefers nice open loam but will grow in just about anything. It is also drought tolerant but prefers regular watering. It is not fond of wet feet though.
Many companies sell seeds and there is no particular difficulty in starting them. You will get better results if you start your seeds inside and away from cats then transplant the seedling. Your main problem will be to keep the cats out of the catnip patch until the little plants have established themselves. Start more than you need and re plant if cats get to them. Often cats don't disturb the plants until they are bruised but not always.
I sprinkle seeds in a pot of potting soil and just barely cover them with soil. The seeds are quite tiny.
Catnip likes some sunshine and can take full sun. It will tolerate partial shade but can get leggy if it's too dark.
If you want to dry your catnip for the winter then cut it and dry thoroughly in a spot your cat cannot reach. It takes quite a lot of time to dry properly. If you store it before it's dry it will go mouldy. Store in an airtight container to retain the volatile oil.
It's not hard to start outside directly in the ground. Plant as soon as soil can be worked and danger of frost is mostly gone.
As an extra bonus Catnip will attract butterflies and honey bees when it flowers. The seeds will bring goldfinch. After milkweed, it is the most favoured flower of bees and butterflies in my garden. After the flowers have gone you can harvest the plants but don't dig up the roots and your catnip will come back.
Catnip as Insect and Rat Repellent
There is a long tradition of planting catnip near a house or barn to repel mice and rats and to keep insects away.
Research has shown that both mosquitoes and some biting flies as well as deer ticks are deterred from biting by catnip. Here is a link to the abstract.Here is another much older research paper link which talks about the insect repellent qualities of catnip extract. pdf file
Catnip has been used where cat sleep to help keep fleas away. The effect on cats only lasts for a few minutes and the cat is not affected after this time. The catnip needs to be regularly refreshed with new grass to keep it working.
Although catnip essential oil works as a deterrent, it's highly concentrated and can be slightly toxic to human and animals. Don't use essential oils on your cat.
More recently, research done at Iowa State Univerty, showed that catnip was 10 times more effective at repelling mosquitoes than DEET.
In the 1960's, Cornell University naturalist Thomas Eisner reported that catnip oil repels insects (Science 1964, 146, 1318). The paper suggested that nepetalactone defends against plant-eating insects.
It's interesting that the same chemical produced by catnip, presumably to keep insects from eating it, is also produced by some species of walking stick insects, presumably for the same purpose.
Catnip extract has been shown to be a termite repellant in the lab.Chemical And Engineering News article on catnip including chemical structure.
Personal experience of Catnip as an insect repellent.
Near the water at our boat club there sometimes are little biting flies. They are devilishly fast and hard to keep away. I was sanding my boat and being bitten to distraction. I found a catnip plant, rubbed the leaves on my legs and exposed arms, and did not get a single bite after this.
I have recently tried to distill essential oils from catnip with good success. Yields are small but the process works. I've added the oil to my insect repellent and it is much improved even with the small quantities I managed to distill.
Valerian is Similar to Catnip
Valerian is another herb that has much the same effect on cats as catnip. Valerian has similar chemicals to catnip and many cats will roll around and eat it in the same way as they react to catnip. With my cats it's a mixed reaction, some like it and react to it but others have not.
Valerian has a long history of use as a calming herb and is often sold as a sleeping aid. It has much the same effect on humans as catnip and is easier to find because it is better known. It has a very characteristic odour and is usually taken as capsules rather than tea. I find it effective in helping me go to sleep when I start tossing and turning. I have a plant in my garden. The flowers smell like sweet cherries.
This article is provided for information and entertainment only. Most of the reported uses of catnip have not been researched or properly documented. This article is not intended to replace medical or veterinary help. If you or your cat are sick see a doctor or vet.