‘Our’ catmint comes from the Caucasus, northern Turkey and Iran. It is popular with gardeners (such as me) because this species is low-growing – some of the others can be positively rambunctious, but this one looks, on the face of it at least, fairly well-behaved. One popular cultivar is known as ‘Walker’s Low’, which is presumably a reference to its size rather than its effect on any passersby.
Catmint is a member of the deadnettle family (Lamiaceae), and as with all of these plants the flowers are surprisingly complex when viewed close-up, almost like little orchids.
Anyone who has tried to grow any of the catmint family (of which there are over 250 species) knows that they have a very peculiar effect on some domestic cats. This is thought to be due to a chemical in the leaves called nepetalactone. The chemical is also a very effective insecticide, especially against mosquitoes, and it’s thought that the way that some cats positively throw themselves into the plant might provide a protective effect against all sorts of biting insects. Furthermore, a second compound in catmint, iridodial, is thought to attract lacewings, whose larvae feed on aphids and mites.
In the photos below, a cat is getting high as a kite on dried catmint/catnip.
It isn’t just domestic cats who react this way to catmint – leopards, cougars, lynx and servals all react in a similar fashion. However, not all cats react in this way, and it’s thought that there’s a genetic component to the attraction. In a similar way, about 10 per cent of human beings can’t smell the flowers of the freesia plant (and very sorry I feel for them too).
If your cat doesn’t react to catmint, however, s/he might react to valerian (the proper one Valerian officinalis, not the red flower that’s all over my garden), silver vine (Actinidia polygama) or the wood of the Tatarian honeysuckle (Lonicera tartarica) should you happen to stumble across any. Cat people will do more or less anything to make their cats happy, so it’s good to know that there are alternatives to boring old Nepeta racemosa.
Interestingly, catmint has been used medicinally to treat anxiety and restlessness in children, and also for flatulence and indigestion. In Mrs Grieve’s Herbal, she is very insistent that the plant is not boiled when a decoction is made, as this destroys the volatile oils that form the active ingredient. The herb was also used to treat headaches and hysteria, and seems to have had a general calming effect. It was also believed that rats hated the plant (maybe because of all those mad cats sitting in the middle of it).
Mrs Grieve also shares a little rhyme about the plant:
‘If you set it, the cats will eat it,
If you sow it, the cats don’t know it.’
And she believes that this is because the cats only react to bruised plants, which is more likely when the catmint has been handled and possibly damaged. I fear for my poor transplanted cat mint, but let’s see.
And finally, here is something by Lu You, a Chinese poet from 1182 who gets a cat to keep the rats from eating his books. As we all discover, sometimes it’s not a question of us owning a cat, more a case of the cat owning us. You can read the whole article here, but here’s a taste…
Poem for my Cat 1 by Lu You (1183, aged 58)
I got a little kitty with a bag of salt
To protect the countless books in my study.
It’s just a shame my family is poor and my wages are low
So it has no rug to lie on or fish to eat
His admiration for his cat soon grows, however….
Rats Kept Ruining my Books so I got a Cat and Within Days the Rats were Vanquished by Lu You
Conscription has left the house empty
Only my cat keeps me company
It’s so soft to touch and warm to hold in bed
So brave and capable that it has ousted the rat’s nest
As valiant as the soldier slaying enemies on the battlefield
I cannot give it much fish to eat but it doesn’t mind
Nor does it waste time catching butterflies amongst the flowers.
His fondness also increases.
I got a Cat from a nearby Village that I’m Calling ‘Snowy’ by Lu You (1191, aged 66)
It looks like a tiger and can climb trees
It acts as if a horse but can’t pull carts
Even though it has vanquished the rat’s nest
It has no demand for fish as meals
Every so often it gets drunk off catnip
Every night it warms the rug
It must have been my child in a past life
Reincarnated to keep me company in my old age.
But soon the cat learns which side its bread is buttered on, and I fear that this will sound all too familiar.
Poem for Pink-Nose by Lu You (1193, aged 68)
Night after night you used to massacre rats
Guarding the grain store so ferociously
So why do you now act as if you live within palace walls,
Eating fish every day and sleeping in my bed?
Some things, it seems, never change.
Photo One by By Kurt Stüber  – caliban.mpiz-koeln.mpg.de/mavica/index.html part of http://www.biolib.de, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5140
Photo Two By Croberto68 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14662571
Photo Three by Alex Hauner, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Photo Four by By Montrealais – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=957230
Photo Five by By dave_7 from Lethbridge, Canada – Tartarian Honeysuckle Flowers, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34583615
Photo Six by Photo by David J. Stang, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons