Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Care and Feeding of Catnip

Despite the cold, my tomato plants are still holding on, which got me to thinking about what other useful  plants I could grow. We'd like to start some strawberries in the spring, and I thought it would be nice to grow some fresh catnip for our pride of cats.

Virginia Tech and several federal and state agencies produced a terrific fact sheet on catnip, which I'll summarize here. If you'd like to read the whole thing, click on the link.

The paper starts out with a history of medicinal uses for the catnip herb, formally known as Nepata cataria. Did you know that catnip is a member of the mint family? I just learned that. In ages past, it's been used to combat insomnia, fight the common cold, alleviate toothaches, and ease intestinal cramps and gas.

The catnip oil that's so attractive to cats also contains compounds that act as natural insecticides and fungicides.

The Virginia Tech paper includes some interesting advice for growing catnip. You can plant in fall or spring, and if you're growing from seeds, you should freeze and thaw them a couple of times, then soak them in water to soften the casing. The plants grow well in full sun and produce clusters of tiny white or lavender flowers on a tall stalk. Both the flowering tops and the leaves are used for medicinal purposes, and the leaves are dried and chopped for cat toys.

The fact sheet concludes with a list of books and websites that contain more information, including how to efficiently grow and harvest catnip on a large scale.

I visited several websites reading about catnip and its cousin catmint. One interesting bit of folklore has it that if you set out a catnip plant in its pot or plant a grown plant, it will attract cats, but if you grow it in the ground from seeds, the cats won't notice. I wonder how that would work, but then again, folklore is quite often built on the practical experiences of real people.

Have you ever grown catnip? Do you have any tips for growing it or preparing it for use in cat toys? Have you ever drunk catnip or catmint tea? I'd love to hear about your experience.