Nepeta Cataria: Make Homemade Catnip Toys

Reader Contribution by Jessy Rushing
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Reminded by my cats, Scarlett and Charlie, I’m writing about catnip. Although there are hundreds of species of catnip, the ones that we’re most familiar with are common catnip (Nepeta cataria) and catmint (Nepeta mussinii).

Catnip is a perennial plant in the Lamiaceae family and, like all mints, can be invasive if not contained. They’re native to Europe and Asia but have naturalized here and can grow wild all over the United States and Canada. It grows well in Zones 3 to 9 and it likes a lot of sun.  

The type of catnip that cats prefer is the Nepeta cataria, or common catnip. It can grow 2 to 3 feet and has white flowers. The Nepeta mussinii, on the other hand usually tops out at 15 inches and has purple flowers. If you would like to grow catnip, but don’t want to become a favorite feline hangout, Nepeta mussinii is the catnip for you. Some believe it’s more attractive in the landscape, too, and both are deer resistant.

The plants will bloom from June through September and should be harvested while they are flowering. Dry them upside down in bundles, then store in airtight containers.

Nepetalactone is the essential oil found in the leaves and stems of common catnip that take cats on their magical mystery tour. The effects of catnip will vary from cat to cat. Kittens and older cats are usually not interested, and some cat are never interested in catnip. How they react can be hereditary, also.  If you have sibling cats or parents, their view of catnip will most likely be the same. Research shows that even large cats, like tigers, are affected by catnip.

I cut two squares of felt, stuffed it with catnip, sewed it shut and left it out for Charlie and Scarlett to investigate. Scarlett is an older cat, probably about 12, and was not impressed. After a disdainful sniff, she sashayed off to groom herself. Charlie, about 4, was another story. He fell in love with his new toy. He was rolling on it and rubbing his face in it before taking it to his bed to guard it from possible thieves.

The catnip response is through the olfactory system. Sniffing catnip gives cat a feeling of euphoria that can make them playful, languid, or even hyperactive. Chewing catnip can make them sleepy. The effects of the nepetalactone don’t last long—after about 15 minutes, Charlie was “full” and settled in for a nap.


Charlie enjoys the homemade catnip toy.
Photos by Jessy Rushing

The effects are not harmful and your cat is in no danger of becoming addicted.

Catnip tea can have a sedative effect on people and is useful in settling an upset stomach. Boil 1 cup of water and add either 3 teaspoons of fresh catnip leaves or 1 teaspoon of dried leaves and steep and sweeten to your taste. One precaution: Some research has shown that the juice from catnip leaves can stimulate menstrual flow, so pregnant women should avoid drinking catnip tea.

Making your own catnip toys are easy, too.  I’ve used storebought catnip for the toys that I made today, but I’m going to grow my own this summer so I can see if fresh makes a difference.

Above: Photo by Bad Alley/Courtesy Flickr

Jessy Rushing is a Texas gardener who fell in love with herbs after tripping into a rosemary shrub on day. The scent on her clothes cheered her up all afternoon. her curiosity was aroused and since then her herb gardening has been part investigation, part experimentation and moey importantly, part delight.  

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