How does it feel?
Catnip should ideally be harvested when in bud and full flower and dried in a place with good airflow, out of direct sun.
The odour of the leaves and stems is almost camphor-like with hints of thyme, sage and mint. It is redolent of other members of the Lamiaceae family such as thyme, sage or pennyroyal. The taste of the fresh plant is aromatic, slightly bitter and astringent.
When dried it has a pleasant fresh, slightly sweet smell, the taste is aromatic and slightly bitter.
What can I use it for?
It is very useful to take as a tea when with cold or fever. It induces perspiration and helps cool an overheated body. It is said to have gentle sedative activity and this may be an additional reason for using, as it can help to calm and bring about sleep when with fever. It has a long tradition of use as a child’s remedy for colds, fever and colic. It is a great remedy for painful wind and spasm in the digestive tract, helping as it does to dispel and prevent further build-up of gas.
Into the heart of Catnip
Catnip has primarily been used as a fever remedy, but also to relax and decongest in coughs and colds. The smooth muscle relaxant properties of the herb have been used to good effect for colicky conditions of the gut and these along with the tannins make it useful in cases of irritable bowel with a tendency to loose stools. It has been used as a poultice for wounds, bruises and haemorrhoids.
Some of these uses are now evidenced by pharmacological studies on a number of the plant’s secondary metabolites and have shown antifungal, antioxidant, antibacterial, insecticidal, anti-inflammatory and spasmolytic properties.
Catnip has been used as a remedy for coughs, sore throats, fevers, headaches, pneumonia, diarrhoea, asthma, asthma, toothache, nervousness, colic and topically to help heal wounds.
It is often taken in the form of a hot infusion to promote sweating and has a long history of use as a fever remedy, especially where there is a chill – bringing warmth and comfort to cold aches and cramps. Taken hot it can also help to relieve nasal congestion.
Like some other members of the Lamiaceae family it is carminative, meaning it prevents the formation of gas in the digestive tract or assists in its release. It relaxes smooth muscle (as in the gut), and relieves the discomfort caused by excessive wind and bloating. It is the volatile oil component of the plant that has this effect. It has been used is asthma and bronchitis and as a nervine to calm.
Before the arrival of tea from China as a beverage, catnip tea was taken as people’s daily cuppa by many folk in Britain.
Despite its use to calm the nervous system, especially when feverish, it was said to be stimulating by some sources and Grieve states in A Modern Herbal that the root when chewed was said to make the most gentle person fierce and quarrelsome (5). The root is not used these days and is likely to contain constituents other than those in the aerial parts.
What practitioners say
Respiratory system: Catnip is used to good effect in feverish conditions, inducing perspiration and lowering the temperature. It is also used to ease the symptoms of the common cold, often combined with herbs such as yarrow, elderflower and boneset for this purpose.
Digestive system: It is an effective spasmolytic, often given to children for colic. It eases flatulence, and indigestion due to its relaxant properties and can be used to quell diarrhoea due to the gentle tannins within.
Nervous system: It has been used in excitability and insomnia, palpitations and ‘nervous indigestion’ to good effect, for the latter it is great in combination with German chamomile and Lemon balm. It is a good remedy for a restless child with fever, gently calming the nervous system and managing the fever.
Sensory: To have a clump growing in a garden or window box adds another dimension to Catnip’s healing properties. With its pleasant aroma and ability to attract bees and other pollinators it provides visual, tactile and olfactory pleasure. Like other members of the mint family such as lemon balm, lavender and rosemary, the foliage and flowers when brushed by or when rubbed between the fingers release pleasant aromas, and can act as a soothing balm for a troubled mind.
Skin: It has been used topically in ointments for haemorrhoids and for cuts by crushing and moistening fresh catnip leaves and applying to the wound as a poultice.
The essential oils from catnip have been studied in isolation for their effectiveness against bacterial and fungal infection and as an insect repellent to prevent mosquito-borne illnesses such as malaria, dengue fever, Zika virus infection and yellow fever.
In terms of the medicinal effects of the whole plant, there is much documented in the way of traditional use, however little has been carried out in the way of qualitative research.
The essential oils have been studied in isolation and have been shown to possess antimicrobial effects (6). This activity is being explored within the food industry as potential for natural preservative agents (7) and also against causes of infection, including oral, where good antimicrobial effects have been demonstrated against candida species including C. albicans and certain species of Streptococcus and Staphylococcus (8).
The polyphenols within Catnip have been assessed for their antioxidant capability and found to demonstrate free radical scavenging effects (4).
Mosquito repellent: There is evidence that the nepetalactones within the plant’s essential oils are comparable to DEET in repelling the mosquitoes that transmit the Zika and Dengue virus, however the preparation needed to be reapplied after 2 hours (9).
Did you know?
The plant produces certain compounds (amongst these the nepetalactone volatile oils) in order to deter it from being eaten. It is said to repel some insects such as flea beetles, weevils and cockroaches so could be put to good use planted amongst vegetables. It also deters mice and rats.
Many aphids also produce nepetalactones, using them as sex pheromones, so Catnip may attract aphid predators such as the Lacewing fly in order to predate on the aphids that are attracted by the plant’s heady aroma.
Most cats adore it of course but lions, leopards and jaguars are also susceptible to the nepetalactones within Catnip. The smell triggers a variety of behavioural responses that can range from mellowness, head-rubbing, becoming vocal and rolling around upon or eating the herb to outright aggression. This susceptibility is a hereditary trait, with around 70% of cats expressing this behaviour. It wears off after about 10 minutes, the cat becoming temporarily immune to its effects for around 30 minutes.
Catnip is a relative of mint and has the typical 4-sided stems of plants within that family. It shares many characteristics including a love of full sun, well-drained soil and a predilection for spreading. Native to the Middle East, Central Asia, southern and Eastern Europe, it has naturalised in many other places.
It is a perennial plant with paired, pointed, pale green oval leaves which are serrated with a hairy underside. The small white flowers are tubular, two-lipped and dotted with deep red. These grow in dense little spiked clusters, blooming from summer into autumn.
Catnip can be confused with other members of the genus Nepeta, and there are around 250 species with 20 or so commonly grown as ornamentals. Known collectively as the Catmints, these others are generally neater in appearance with larger lilac or blue flowers and a compact bushy appearance. They lack the full medicinal and cat-narcotic properties of N. cataria, which is more weed-like and unruly in its growing habits (1).
- Katzenminze (Ger.)
Catnip is generally considered to be a very safe remedy when given in therapeutic doses, often being given to children with feverish colds.
Some traditional sources say Catnip was used as a mild emmenagogue, (a herb used to stimulate blood flow to the uterus and to bring on a delayed period due to causes other than pregnancy), so there is a theoretical risk with high doses during the first two trimesters of pregnancy.
- Infusion of dried herb
Like all febrifuges it is best administered as a hot infusion for feverish colds and ‘flu with the dose at 5-10g of dried herb per dose as an infusion, taken three cups daily.
2-5 ml per day of a 1:3 strength tincture.
Plant parts used
The whole aerial parts are used, best harvested both when in bud and flowering.
- Volatile oils: including the nepetalactones, thymol, geraniol, alpha and beta pinene, beta caryophyllene (2, 3)
- Phenolic acids including rosmarinic acid
- Flavonoids including luteolin and apigenin
Native to the Middle East, Central Asia, southern and eastern Europe, it has naturalised in many other places.
According to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Plants Status this plant’s population has been assessed in Europe is currently classed as ‘least concern’ as it is widespread with stable populations. However, it also states in the assessment details that the species is classed as threatened on various national red lists (12).
Habitat loss and over harvesting from the wild are two of the biggest threats faced by medicinal plant species. There are an increasing number of well known herbal medicines at risk of extinction. We must therefore ensure that we source our medicines with sustainability in mind.
The herb supplement industry is growing at a rapid rate and until recent years a vast majority of medicinal plant produce in global trade was of unknown origin. There are some very real and urgent issues surrounding sustainability in the herb industry. These include environmental factors that affect the medicinal viability of herbs, the safety of the habitats that they are taken from, as well as the welfare of workers in the trade.
The botanical supply chain efforts for improved visibility (transparency and traceability) into verifiably sustainable production sites around the world is now certificated through the emergence of credible international voluntary sustainability standards (VSS). Read our article on sustainable sourcing of herbs to learn more about what to look for and questions to ask suppliers about sustainability.
Herbal Medicines are often extremely safe to take, however it is important to buy herbal medicines from a reputed supplier. Sometimes herbs bought from unreputable sources are contaminated, adulterated or substituted with incorrect plant matter.
Some important markers for quality to look for would be to look for certified organic labelling, ensuring that the correct scientific/botanical name is used and that suppliers can provide information about the source of ingredients used in the product.
A supplier should be able to tell you where the herbs have come from. There is more space for contamination and adulteration when the supply chain is unknown.
How to grow
Catnip is easy to grow. It prefers to be located in a full sun, requiring free-draining soil. It can also be planted at the edge of a border, in a raised bed, or a large pot
- Seed should be sown from spring to autumn from spring to late summer. Sprinkle thinly in a small pot or tray of moist seed compost, lightly covering the seeds with compost.
- Once seedlings are large enough to handle they can be transplanted into individual 9cm pots and grow on without heat until they are large enough to plant out.
- Established clumps that are at least 3 years old can be divided, whilst dormant, in autumn or early spring.
- Cut back dead stems during the dormant period and before new shoots start to appear in mid-spring.
- Once established, catnip is tolerant to drought.
- Hawke, R. Plant Evaluation Manager. (2007) A Comparative study of Cultivated Catmints. Chicago Botanic Garden. Issue 29.
- Morteza-Semnani K and Saeedi M (2004): Essential oils composition of Nepeta cataria L. and Nepeta crassifolia Boiss. and Buhse from Iran. Journal of essential oil bearing plants. (7):120-124
- Kilic, O et al (2013) Essential oil compounds of three Nepeta L. Taxa from Turkey and their chemotaxonomy. Asian J. Chem. 25(14), 8181
- Reichert, W et al. (2018) Phytochemical analysis and anti-inflammatory activity of Nepeta cataria accessions. Journal of Medicinally Active Plants 7, (1):19-27.
- Grieve M (1931) A Modern Herbal. Tiger press. Ed 1992. ISBN 1-83-5501-249-9
- Adiguzel, A et al. (2009) Antimicrobial and antioxidant activity of the essential oil and methanol extract of Nepeta cataria. Polish journal of Microbiology. Vol 58: 69-76
- Zomorodian, K et al (2012) Chemical Composition and Antimicrobial Activities of Essential Oils from Nepeta cataria L. against Common Causes of Food-Borne Infections. International Scholarly Research Notices, vol 2012. Article ID 591953, 6 pages. https://doi.org/10.5402/2012/591953
- Zomorodian, K et al (2013) Chemical Composition and Antimicrobial Activities of Essential Oil of Nepeta cataria L. against Common Causes of Oral Infections. Journal of Dentistry of Tehran University Medical Sciences. 10(4): 329-337
- Reichert, W et al. (2019). Repellency Assessment of Nepeta cataria Essential Oils and Isolated Nepetalactones on Aedes aegypti. Sc
- Sharma, A etc al. (2019). Pharmacology and Toxicology or Nepeta cataria (Catmint) species of genus Nepeta. A Review. Plant and Human Health, Vol 3: Pharmacology and Therapeutic Uses (pp.285-299) Springer International Publishing.
- Hill JO, et al. (1976). “Species-characteristic responses to catnip by undomesticated felids”. Journal of Chemical Ecology.2 (2): 239– 253. doi:10.1007/BF00987747.Khela, S. (2013). IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: Nepeta cataria. [online] IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Available at: https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/203251/2762586 [Accessed 30 Nov. 2022].