Catnip: Just the Facts, Ma’am


When you hear the word “catnip,” the first image that pops to mind may be an idealized feline flailing about like a lunatic on the floor, or your own cat knocking around his favorite cat toy. Catnip, or Nepeta cataria, has become so widely known as a source of cat amusement (despite the fact we really don’t know why it affects them) that it’s become a byword for anything that unfathomably attracts or stimulates. Here at Catster, we’re going to share what we know about catnip, and show that it has many practical uses and serves many aesthetic purposes beyond simply driving your cat nuts for a few minutes.

What is catnip?

“What is catnip made of?” may seem a bizarre sort of question, but I firmly believe the only truly silly questions are those that go unasked. Well, except for “What is a cat?” If you don’t know the answer to that, I cannot help you. To all outward appearances, catnip, a member of the mint family, is a simple plant. If it is not in bloom, you might walk right past it, as the hobbits did with athelas, which they regarded as a common weed in The Lord of the Rings. Like athelas, catnip is more than it seems.

Catnip originated in Asia and Europe before making its way around the world. The first part of its scientific name, “Nepeta,” reflects those local roots, as the genus is derived from the ancient Etruscan city of Nepete (now Nepi) in central Italy. Having spread globally during the 17th century by means of exploration and trade, it’s now quite common worldwide. It has small heart- or spade-shaped leaves, and, when it is in bloom from spring to autumn, it yields lovely little flowers. Depending on the particular strain of catnip, they can be white, pink, or purple.

Catnip effects

The leaves and stems of catnip produce a chemical compound known as nepetalactone, the scent of which is the primary attractor for cats. This component of catnip’s essential oil seems to be most powerful when the plant is fresh and bruised or dried, and the oil is directly exposed to the air. Nepetalactone sensitivity develops during kittenhood. When a kitten is three to six months of age, and if she is genetically predisposed, proclivity to catnip will begin to show. Catnip’s effects depend on how cats are exposed to it and whether they are susceptible to its allure. Scent, touch, and ingestion all provoke different reactions to cats who are inclined toward catnip.

The effects of catnip are both well known and amusing. Cats who do react to catnip may wriggle about, drool, and become more aggressive or hyperactive for a short period of time. These reactions tend to be most visible from 10 to 15 minutes after the strongest olfactory exposure. As you may know, not all cats do react to catnip, and your cat’s mileage may vary. Catnip attraction is hereditary. Our research shows a pretty broad range of statistics when it comes to cats’ response to catnip. Broadly speaking, between 50 percent and 75 percent of cats are sensitive to catnip and react to its properties.

Catnip: It’s not just for cats!

Catnip is a flowering plant with many interesting and fascinating properties beyond what it says on the tin. While it is a common enough weed, growing catnip can provide unheralded boons. Blooming from spring through autumn, it both attracts the right crowd and repels the neighborhood pests. Catnip functions as a butterfly attractor, bringing not only its own beautiful flowers when it is in bloom, but also drawing a panoply of colorful flying insects to your garden. My catnip, for instance, brings all the butterflies to the yard. The benefits for pollination and beautification are obvious.

I was surprised and delighted to learn, while researching this article, that when it is strategically placed around your yard or in your garden, catnip serves salutary purposes that can help to protect not only you, but also your ornamental flowers and fruit-bearing plants. Well cultivated, and with a large enough presence, catnip acts as a natural repellent for certain beetles, cockroaches, flies, mosquitoes, rats, and deer. Further, the leaves of the nepeta plant can be brewed as a tea that is similar in its soothing, palliative properties to chamomile and other soothing herbal beverages.

Share your catnip experiences!

We’ve talked about what catnip is and how it affects cats. We’ve spoken of the bonuses for yourself and your garden that catnip can provide, and suggested some of its non-cat applications. While we certainly could’ve addressed other, more recreational, certainly-not-recommended uses for catnip, those are discussions best held on sites other than Catster.

What are your experiences with catnip? Do your cats react to it reliably, or are yours among the one-third to one-half that really can’t be bothered with it no matter how much you put in front of them? Share your catnip stories in the comments!

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