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Catmint - Encyclopedia

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What is Catmint?

Catnip herb

Catmint is a wild English plant belonging to the large family Labiatae, of which the Mints and Dead nettles are also members. It is owing to this scent that freshly dried leaves attract cats. Most cats find eating and rolling in catmint to be pleasurable and intoxicating. There is an old saying about this plant:

'If you set it, the cats will eat it, if you sow it, the cats don't know it.'

And it seems to be a fact that plants transplanted are always destroyed by cats unless protected, but they never meddle with the plants raised from seed, being only attracted to it when it has withered, or when the peculiar scent of the plant is excited by being bruised in gathering or transplanting.


By the 1890's, Ojibwe women were using Catmint. It had a native name, Gajugensibug, and was said to be a good tea to drink to bring down fevers, as well as pleasant-tasting.

In France, the leaves and young shoots are used for seasoning, and it is regularly grown amongst kitchen herbs for the purpose. Both there and in this country, it has an old reputation for its value as a medicinal herb. Miss Bardswell, in The Herb Garden, writes of Catmint:

'Before the use of tea from China, our English peasantry were in the habit of brewing Catmint Tea, which they said was quite as pleasant and a good deal more wholesome. Ellen Montgomery in The Wide, Wide World made Catmint Tea for Miss Fortune when she was ill. It is stimulating. The root when chewed is said to make the most gentle person fierce and quarrelsome, and there is a legend of a certain hangman who could never screw up his courage to the point of hanging anybody till he had partaken of it. Rats dislike the plant particularly, and will not approach it even when driven by hunger.'


Catmint flowers

Catmint is a wild English plant belonging to the large family Labiatae, of which the Mints and Dead-nettles are also members, is generally distributed throughout the central and the southern counties of England, in hedgerows, borders of fields, and on dry banks and waste ground, especially in chalky and gravelly soil. It is less common in the north, very local in Scotland and rare in Ireland, but of frequent occurrence in the whole of Europe and temperate Asia, and also common in North America.

The root is perennial and sends up square, erect and branched stems, 2 to 3 feet high, which are very leafy and covered with a mealy down. The heart-shaped, toothed leaves are also covered with a soft, close down, especially on the undersides, which are quite white with it, so that the whole plant has a hoary, greyish appearance, as though it had had dust blown over it.

The flowers grow on short footstalks in dense whorls, which towards the summit of the stem are so close as almost to form a spike. They are in bloom from July to September. The individual flowers are small, the corollas two-lipped, the upper lip straight, of a whitish or pale pink colour, dotted with red spots, the anthers a deep red colour. The calyx tube has fifteen ribs, a distinguishing feature of the genus Nepeta, to which this species belongs.


Nepetalactone is a terpene composed of two isoprene units, with a total of ten carbons. Constituents of Catmint are:

  • Volatile oil, carvacrol, citronellal, nerol, geraniol, pulegone, thymol and nepetalic acid.
  • Iridoids, including epideoxyloganic acid and 7- deoxyloganic acid.
  • Tannins.

Its chemical structure is similar to that of the valepotriates derived from the herb Valerian, which is a mild central nervous system sedative (or stimulant to some persons).


Catmint is one of the traditional cold and flu remedies. It is a useful diaphoretic helpful in any feverish condition, especially acute bronchitis. As a carminative with anti-spasmodic properties, Catmint eases any stomach upsets, dyspepsia, flatulence and colic. It is a perfect remedy for the treatment of diarrhoea in children. Its sedative action on the nerves adds to its generally relaxing properties.

It is possible to obtain a very mild intoxication when Catmint is mixed in equal parts with tobacco. The euphoria produced is reported to be significantly weaker than that of marijuana. But, it is possible that catmint's effect is produced merely as a result of enhancing the intoxicating properties of the nicotine found in the tobacco.

Research from the Iowa State University has found that the oil extracted from catnip (Nepeta cataria) containing nepetalactone has been found to be nearly 10 times more effective at repelling mosquitoes than DEET.

Furthermore, in Asia Catmint is being used in zoos for years to calm down lions and tigers.

Medical use

The flowering tops are the part utilized in medicine and are harvested when the plant is in full bloom in August. Medical qualities of this plant: carminative, tonic, diaphoretic, refrigerant and slightly emmenagogue, specially antispasmodic, and mildly stimulating. It will relieve painful swellings when applied in the form of a poultice or fomentation.


The two species that Catmint is related to, Nepeta faassenii and Nepeta grandiflora, also attract cats.


Pour a cup of boiling water onto 2 teaspoonfuls of the dried herb and leave to infuse for 10-15 minutes. This should be drunk three times a day. Catmint could also be taken as an infusion, decoction or injection.


Catnip is safe, however, avoid excessive ingestion since vomiting or diarrhoea may occur. Women who have pelvic inflammatory disease or who are pregnant should not take Catmint by mouth.


Catnip may be combined with other agents of a more decidedly diaphoretic nature. Equal parts of warm Catnip tea and Saffron are excellent in scarlet-fever and small-pox, as well as colds and hysterics. With colds, it may be combined successfully with Boneset, Elder, Yarrow or Cayenne.


Catmint is easily grown in any garden soil and does not require moisture in the same way as the other Mints. It may be increased by dividing the plants in spring, or by sowing seeds at the same period. Sow in rows, about 20 inches apart, thinning out the seedlings to about the same distance apart as the plants attain a considerable size. They require no attention and will last for several years if the ground is kept free from weeds. The germinating power of the seeds lasts five years.

Links / Further reading

Catnip repels mosquitoes more effectively than DEET


This article is based on the following pages:

Botanical on Catmint

HealthWorld Online on Catmint

Natural and Other Legal Intoxicants

Holoweb on Catnip

Wikipedia on Nepeta cataria (including upper image)

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