Catnip and Cousins: Best Known Species of Nepeta

Essential plants for any herb garden.

  • This giant catmint, Souvenir d’André Chaudron, is a cool splash of color in the herb garden.
    Photo By Andy Van Hevelingen
  • Nepeta subsessilis is a fairly new introduction from Japan, where it grows on shady stream banks.
    Photo By Andy Van Hevelingen
  • The fresh young foliage of Persian catmint (N. racemosa) is a welcome sight in spring.
    Photo By Andy Van Hevelingen
  • The flower spikes of N. tuberosa add drama to this sunny corner at the Bellevue Botanical Garden in Bellevue, Washington.
    Photo By Andy Van Hevelingen
  • Snowflake Persian catmint (N. racemosa ‘Snowflake’)
    Photo By Andy Van Hevelingen
  • Purple-flowered form of catnip (N. cataria)
    Photo By Andy Van Hevelingen
  • Caucasian nepeta (N. grandiflora)
    Photo By Andy Van Hevelingen
  • Himalayan catmint (N. clarkei)
    Photo By Andy Van Hevelingen
  • nervosa
    Photo By Andy Van Hevelingen

I will always fondly remember Emma Wakefield and her herb garden. In the late 1960s, when I was high-school age, she introduced me to herbs and the folklore associated with them. This retired schoolteacher, now deceased, was one of the leading herb growers in Oregon. Seldom did I return home from a visit to her garden without an herb division wrapped up in newspaper with the name scribbled on the corner.

That’s how catnip (Nepeta cataria) first came into my life. I planted Emma’s gift in my garden, then went about my weeding chores. Suddenly an alarming commotion of thrashing noises and quaking bushes erupted. Peering over the top of the bee balm, I discovered our cat, Squinklock, usually an ill-tempered brute, curled blissfully around the base of the catnip plant. She looked up at me through slightly closed eyelids, a euphoric expression on her face, then, without warning, started shredding the plant. When I rebuked her for wanton destruction, she bolted, attacking unknown imaginary prey and one unfortunate sleeping dog.

I recalled the couplets that Emma had recited to me while wrapping up the catnip: “If you set it, the cats will eat it. If you sow it, the cats don’t know it” (Philip Miller, 1754). In other words, foraging cats are much less likely to attack self-sown plants than plants newly set out. Today, we know that the bruised leaves of a newly transplanted catnip plant release nepetalactone, a component of the essential oil that mimics a cat’s sexual pheromones. Catnip thus acts as an aphrodisiac, which may explain the bizarre ways in which cats react to catnip. Now I wonder, did the cat attack the dog out of spite, or was it a crime of mistargeted passion?

Catnip and its effect on cats have been well documented. A thirteenth-century German manuscript refers to catnip as Kattesminte, or catmint. The genus name Nepeta is believed to be derived from the city of Nepi (called Nepete by the Etruscans) in Tuscany, Italy, where catnip once grew in great profusion. Although only twenty or so species and cultivars are available in ­current catalogs, the genus comprises about 250 species. All originated in temperate areas of Europe, Asia, and Africa and have naturalized elsewhere. In North America, catnip has spread to the point of weediness.

Catnip nonetheless remains an extremely well-known and popular aromatic perennial herb. The common name catnip is usually limited to N. cataria while the term catmint refers to practically all the other species. Members of the mint family (Lamiaceae), nepetas have the characteristic square stem with opposite, aromatic gray or green leaves that are usually toothed. The individual flowers are generally small, 1/4 to 1/2 inch long, and two-lipped; the calyx tube of fifteen ribs is characteristic of the genus. The flowers are nearly all various shades of blue to white and are found in clusters either at the stem tips or in the leaf axils. Those of N. sibirica, N. grandiflora, N. subsessilis, and N. yunnanensis are rich deep blue to violet.

Nepetas are often found in the wild in sunny, dry locations, particularly in chalky or gravelly soils. They are drought resistant and require far less moisture than their mint relatives. All prefer well-drained soil; winter wetness can be fatal. Most species tolerate lean soil, although more fertile soils encourage bushiness. All will grow in soil of pH 5 to 7.5.

5/16/2016 3:15:01 PM

We have been growing catnip for several years as a treat for out two cats. We started from one purchased plant. Of course, catnip does a remarkable job of self seeding, so we have not needed to purchase more. This year, two plants exhibit leaves that are significantly different than any other that we have had. The largest leaves of the "normal" plants are approx. 3 1/4" long by 2 1/2" wide with a sharply serrated edge. The "mutant" plants have leaves that are 4 1/2" long by 3 1/2" wide with a much more rounded serration on the edges. Since all of the plants are the descendants of that one original, I'm wondering if the abnormal plants are truly mutations or if they may be throwbacks if the original plant was a hybrid.

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