The Medicinal Herb Garden: Catnip
June 27, 2013 — The Medicinal Herb Garden ~ By Stephanie Ross, Director of the Complementary and Integrative Therapy Program, Health Sciences Department
Catnip (Nepeta cataria; Lamiaceae)
Catnip, also known as catmint, is a widely grown perennial herb that belongs to the mint family. It grows one to three feet high with ascending, opposite branched stems. The coarse, pubescent, ovate shaped leaves are gray-green in color, with characteristic serrated edges that render a pungent, mint-like aroma when crushed. Small, purple flowers are borne in whorls in the upper leaf axils between mid-summer and autumn.
The species name, cataria, is derived from the Latin, word catari, meaning “of a cat”, earning its well-established reputation as a feline aphrodisiac. The catnip response, as it is often referred, involves sniffing and chin rubbing behavior that typically escalates to full body rubbing, and ultimately, peaks with enthusiastic rolling and carousing over the crushed aromatic catnip plant. Interestingly, catnip herbal preparations have a polar opposite effect on humans, eliciting a calming rather than stimulating effect. This reaction is due to a phytochemical called nepetalactone, the primary active constituent found in the essential oil that is synthesized in the leaves.
Traditional use of catnip by Native Americans includes treatment of colds, fever reduction, relief of stomach upset and to encourage restful sleep. Today, catnip continues to play a role in herbal medicine preparations that are formulated for treatment of fevers, colds, stomachaches, and headaches.