Herbs are such mysterious plants. You just get to know one well because of some incredible talent, and then it shows you another trick.
Such is my story of growing catnip, also known as catmint (Nepeta cataria), a member of the mint family best known for its ability to trigger episodes of euphoria in cats. This is a cool characteristic, but then I saw catnip in action as a nectar plant while visiting a honeybee sanctuary, pleasing bees by the thousands. With no thought of other possible benefits, I started growing catnip for cats and bees.
Rather, I should say that I began allowing it to grow itself. When catnip blooms for weeks for the benefit of bees, it sheds sufficient seeds to give rise to a sprinkling of volunteer seedlings the following spring. These are easy to lift and move to wherever they are wanted. I compost little plants I don't want, which is an important step in managing catnip. Nepeta cataria is on the invasive plants watch list for the state of Kentucky in the central US, though in other areas where it has naturalized it is considered a wildflower.
Growing Catnip in the Garden
These days I grow at least four clumps of catnip each year, because we use it generously as a home grown tea herb. Combined with chamomile and a little mint or lemon balm, catnip tea promotes relaxation and may make it easier to sleep or manage stress. Besides, catnip tea tastes good!
Catnip grows into a floppy mound three feet tall and wide, but the plants do not send out runners like other mints tend to do. The leaves are covered with soft hairs that contain the volatile oils that give catnip its distinctive scent. If you are working in your garden and start getting too much attention from flies, mosquitoes, and other biting bugs, grab a handful of leaves and rub them on your exposed skin. For a short time, you should enjoy relief comparable to what you might get with DEET, the strongest personal chemical pesticide you can buy.
Catnip is such an exuberant grower that it does not suffer from being cut back in early summer, when the best stems of the year are harvested for drying. New growth that develops later in the summer can be dried, too, but I think the early summer cuttings are the best. Problems? In late spring, some stem tips show brown dots that run together, evidence of feeding by here-and-gone plant bugs. When the damaged tips are pinched off, they are quickly replaced by healthy foliage.
Catnip is easy to dry at a low temperature in a dehydrator, or you can hang the stems in small bunches to dry in a warm, airy place. A dehydrator does the best job of preserving the leaves' color. I like to place catnip on dehydrator trays with the leaves still attached to the stems, and then strip off the leaves when they dry to crisp. As with other leafy herbs, I get the best results by drying catnip for an hour or two one day, then letting the stems rest overnight in the dehydrator, and finishing them the next day. Store dried catnip in airtight containers in a cool, dark place.
Ready for more catnip talents? The water-soluble compounds in catnip leaves have potent antibacterial properties, so the old folk practice of using catnip tea to rinse and clean wounds is not without merit. Researchers in India are studying how catmint's cleanup talents might be put to work as a food preservative.
Catnip has numerous benefits to people, but fortunately no magical effects like those it has on 75 percent of cats, of all sizes. Most of us have heard that big cats like tigers and leopards like catnip, and thanks to this video from Big Cat Rescue, you can see for yourself. If catnip had similar effects on us, we would never leave the garden.
By Barbara Pleasant