Cats on High
Cool plants for your cats!
It seems that we are daily reading, listening and talking about recreational drugs in some form or other. There is debate about the term recreational but that is exactly what they are. Alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, cocaine ecstasy etc are rarely ever used for medicinal or therapeutic purposes. So, whenever we use them it is for some form of making ourselves feel better. We also assume that this is a uniquely human thing.
Well, we are not alone. There are many cases of animals imbibing in fermented fruits but the biggest drug uses of the animal world are our friendly house cats. The humble pet pussy is a lover of three plants that are known to put them on a high. So much so that they all have a common name using the word cat: Cat Mint, Catnip and Cat Grass. All three have chemicals in their structure that give most cats a buzz and allow them to drift off with the pixies.
The genus Nepeta is commonly called ‘catmints’ due to the euphoric effect the various species have on cats. It is a member of the family, Lamiaceae. This is commonly called the Mint family and includes a large number of the world’s favourite herbs such as Lavender, Rosemary, Sage, Mint and Oregano.
There are in excess of 250 species most of which are herbaceous perennials and they all have square stems and aromatic essential oils in the foliage and flowers. A large number are free flowering shrubs that are popular garden plants. In Australia the name Catmint usually refers to cultivars of the natural garden hybrid between Nepeta racemosa and Nepeta nepetella called Nepeta x faassenii. These cultivars range from low growing forms like Walker’s Low to the large shrub Six Hills Giant. There is also an attractive white form.
The Catmints will grow in a wide range of conditions and are quite drought tolerant. They look good and perform well in most gardens. Use them as low borders, pot plants, edging for paths and around large rose bushes. Cats like rolling around in any of the cultivars of catmint but much prefer Catnip, Nepeta cataria. This plant also has attractive grey green foliage but with dainty white flowers. It grows to about 1m tall and, like Catmints, performs well in Australian gardens and can be used in the same places..
Catnip originally comes from eastern Europe, parts of the Middle east and western Asia. It has been used as a medicinal herb, culinary herb and garden plant since the times of the Ancient Romans and Greeks. It was described by Pliny around 2000 years ago. With any plant this popular, easy to grow and hardy it is no surprise that it it is found right across the northern hemisphere. It has become naturalised in many parts of North America and is classed as a weed in several parts of the US.
The active ingredient in the genus is nepetalactone which is a key component of the essential oil from Nepeta cataria. It is a typical organic compound with molecules made up from a mix of carbon, oxygen and hydrogen in a series of single and double bonds. It is regarded as a ‘cat attractant’along with an extract from Valerian (actinidine) and a range of other compounds.
Nepetalactone, like other cat attractants, mainly works through the olfactory system through specific receptors inside the nasal passages. Its effects are mostly visible on domestic cats but have been observed on almost all cat varieties. It is described as a recreational stimulant for cats (sounds familiar) that brings about a particular set of behavioural responses. This is known to occur in about 65% of all domestic cats and it is assumed that the response mechanism has a genetic correlation.
Nepetalactone acts on the receptors in the nasal passages which means it is most effective as a gas or vapour. This occurs when the plants are damaged, bruised or otherwise made to release the essential oils into the atmosphere. There is no benefit to the cats in eating the leaves but it is felt that by doing so they release the oils into the air. The cats will pick up any trace in the air (as low as 1part per billion) and when stimulated by nepetalactone they show a particular set of actions. These include chin, cheek, and body rubbing (in that order), sniffing, chewing, licking, head shaking, drooling and may also include stretching, aggressive and hyperactive actions. This intense behaviour will usually last between five and ten minutes.
The bruising of the plant leaves is so critical that some reports say the seed grown plants that have never been transplanted or trimmed do not bring about the same level of behaviour. Indeed there is an old saying that discusses the dangers of transplanting the plant in the presence of cats:
'If you set it, the cats will eat it, If you sow it, the cats don't know it.'
It seems to be a fact that cats always destroy plants transplanted unless protected, but they never meddle with the plants raised from seed, being only attracted to it when it is in a withering state, or when the peculiar scent of the plant is excited by being bruised in gathering or transplanting” Maud Grieve, 1931
As the compound is attractive to cats it is as repulsive to insects and rodents. It is 100x more powerful than the active ingredients in Aeroguard on mosquitoes and is strongly disliked by rats. Take several leaves, break them up and rub on the skin (not broken skin) and watch the mossies fly away. Place some plants around doors, sheds and any other places where pests can enter the house, especially on verandahs, patios and entranceways.
As a medicinal herb it has many benefits and has been used for 2000 plus years in both traditional and alternative medicine. Like so many of our classic herbal remedies, Catnip has been used for respiratory ailments, for a wide range of issues associated with the digestive system, fevers and cramps and stress. There is little or no scientific analysis of any of its uses but masses of anecdotal evidence. The most prevalent is its use as a relaxing tea especially for children.
It can also be used to add a soft minty flavour to salads and casseroles. The standard variety and the lemon form have a solid flavour that is excellent for soups and seasoning meat. It gives a slight mint taste to herbal teas and deserts.
This common and understated herb is a real winner. It looks good, is easy to grow, useful in the kitchen, works as a pest repellent and is a real buzz for the feline members of the household.