Love That Catnip!

When cultivating herbs for the horse farm, be sure to include catnip - a beneficial weed for horse, human, and of course, the cat. Few felines turn their little noses away from this fuzzy favorite. Catnip, Nepeta cataria (also known as catmint, catnep, catswort, and fieldbalm), native to Europe and Asia, is a common volunteer herb in many parts of the world, especially North America.

As cat medicine
Catnip, cultivated for cats by the ancient Greeks and Romans and aptly named (cats love to nip at it), is a strong-scented perennial herb of the mint family, Lamiaceae (formerly Labiatae). The aroma of this plant is, to a cat, euphoric, and felines of all kinds enjoy sniffing, rubbing, eating it and rolling in it (rolling in it breaks and crushes the leaves, bringing out more scent). The effect it has on cats is not the same as for humans, however; our make-up responds differently to its effects. Usually cats will purr, become very playful and almost spastic at times, and then often sleep it off. Some cats will just get drowsy. Interestingly, cats are only affected when they smell it - the effect is not from ingesting it. For humans and horses, catnip is mostly sedative.

As human medicine
The use of catnip as a mildly relaxing tea dates back to old England, where it was a popular drink prior to the importation of teas from Asia. A pleasant-tasting tea of the leaves and flowing tops has long been used for children's ailments - infectious diseases such as measles, upset stomach and diarrhea, colds and flu, and fever. It helps to dry up postnasal drip, gets rid of headaches, increases perspiration which makes it handy for fevers and eliminating toxins, relieves sore aching bones due to colds and flu, is soothing to the nervous system, and is a useful calmative for hyperactive children. Mild catnip tea is used to relieve colic in babies. Consumed prior to bedtime, catnip tea is widely believed to hasten slumber and aid in achieving a restful nights sleep. It supports digestion, promotes menstruation, and relieves cramps and migraine as well.

Applied externally or added to the bath, catnip is good for skin irritations. Catnip oil is great used as aromatherapy - it contains nepetalactone, the volatile oil that gives the plant its odor, and is chemically similar to valerian, another sedative herb.

The fresh young shoots of catnip are good in spring salads and rubbed into meat for flavor and tenderizing.

As horse medicine
Catnip is a safe herb for horses and is useful for many of the same things as humans, mainly diarrhea, nervousness, excitement and tension. It is considered a sedative, nervine, and antispasmodic.

Added benefits
Per nature and evolution, catnip produces nepetalactone for the purpose of attracting pollinators and repelling plant-eating insects and herbivores. Why nature intended it to attract cats who chew on it and roll in it (!) isn't certain - perhaps to help disperse seed or pollinate. But what is certain is that nepetalactone is an excellent mosquito repellent. Recent studies have shown that it is ten times more effective that DEET, the chemical used in commercial repellants. (Looks like we may want to plant huge patches of it for horses to roll in!) Catnip oil has also been found to repel cockroaches. It affects the central nervous system and possibly reproduction in some insects. The oil is a natural defense mechanism against insects and the cats may be coating themselves to ward off fleas and other insects. It attracts bees, but defers flea beetles.

Growing catnip
This low-maintenance herb may already be growing at your farm. It has square, erect and branched stems and grows 2 to 3 feet high. The entire plant has a minty fragrance. The leaves are oval or heart-shaped, opposite, toothed, and have a fine downy underside giving the whole plant a silvery green appearance. Its small flowers grow in dense whorls at the top of the stems and are white to pale pink with reddish to purple spots.

It prefers chalky or gravelly well-drained soil, but grows on waste ground, roadsides, railroad banks, edges of fields and hedgerows. It doesn't require much water, and is easy to grow in either full sun or partial shade; stem sections can be rooted in moist medium. Gather the above-ground parts just after blooms open (from June to September).

Fun with catnip
Make catnip toys for your feline. Even though they may have free access to lots of freshly growing catnip plants, there is still something fun about having it dried and in a toy. Put some in a sock and tie a knot in it for an instant toy. Sprinkle it on a throw rug for rug-wrestlers. Get a catnip ball, a snap-together plastic hollow ball with holes in it, and fill it with dried or fresh catnip. Get creative and sew some catnip toys using safe and sturdy fabric (and give them away as gifts). Keep the dried herb stored in an airtight jar or tooth-and-claw-resistant container, out of sunlight, to maintain freshness.

Whether imported or purchased locally, grown and harvested from your own barnyard or grown on your windowsill, catnip is an important part of your cat's day - and yours. Grow some today.