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A Cat-Lover’s Herb

December 9, 2016 Back to Picks >

Cats make me wary. When I’m brash enough to approach, they stalk off, tail held high. But when I ignore them, cats switch to the “hold me, pet me” treatment, rubbing against my leg, plaintively meowing, and eventually leaping into my lap. Perhaps that’s why I love catnip. A mere whiff of this herb and they turn into cavorting kitties, wallowing around and behaving as though they are high on something.

No one knows why this herb affects cats so much. Some believe it smells like cat sexual hormones. Others think the chemicals in catnip act as a hallucinogen, turning tame tabbies into wild things. About two-thirds of felines (even lions, tigers, and other big cats) sniff and lick the air, rub their jowls in the catnip, and roll around like a kitten.

Catnip (Nepeta cataria) is a short lived perennial, growing to about twenty inches. The toothed leaves are gray-green and slightly fuzzy. Bracts of small white flowers appear in mid-summer. Although you may find it available in pots in spring, it’s more commonly sold as seed.

There’s an old gardener’s saying about catnip: “If you set it, cats will get it, but if you sow it, cats won’t know it.” Catnip that is transplanted or “set out” releases essential oils as it’s handled. Its alluring aroma will draw the neighborhood cats to roll on it and sometimes dig it up. They’re especially fond of munching on the root. If you are plagued with this problem, protect your young catnip with chicken wire or some other cat-proof barrier.

Unlike transplants, seeds don’t exude that odor. Cats won’t “know it” and be drawn to your sowing. The down-side of using seeds is they are notoriously slow to germinate. Although seedlings will usually emerge after twenty days, catnip seeds have been known to remain dormant for up to three years.