Spring arrives, and I assign myself the simple and enjoyable task of strolling through my wild garden. Little starts of motherwort and yellow dock catch my eye. I see a few young leaves of dandelion and plantain. And then there’s catnip, in all its grace and boldness. My count yields 7 different patches bolting from the ground. I decide that this Springs first article will be about Nepeta cataria, common name catnip, the ubiquitous ally to felines and their human friends.
I have to marvel when a plant knows how to survive an animal’s indulgences. Catnip is one of those plants. Long ago I believed it was because catnip self seeds all over, rooting and hiding amongst shade and sun plants alike. I felt its strategy was based on random patterning and placement techniques to reduce recognition. I was fascinated to witness my cats walking past plants without acknowledging them.
A few years ago, though, catnip’s secret was revealed. I was reading Maude Grieve’s herbal, and there it was. According to her, catnip is undetectable to cats when in the ground unless the leaves are bruised. That as long as the plant is undamaged, it’s potent scent is contained, and it can maintain its anonymity for quite some time.
I’m all for felines getting a catnip fix. It is fun to see them scurry about after reveling in its scent, or mellowing to observe after consuming it. But catnip is not just for cats. It’s a potent and useful human medicine as well. Finding it untouched means my family and clients have enough for the year.
With this article, I hope to inspire you grow your own patch of catnip, make your own medicine and understand how to use it.
The Nepeta genus is host to over 250 plant species and is in the Mint family, Latin name Lamiaceae. It has the traditional identifying features of this family. A square stem, pungent scent and a leaf that is somewhat heart shaped.
The medicinal species of catnip, Nepeta cataria, is native to Europe. It boasts a 2,000 year history as a medicine. Nepeta cataria was brought to North America in the late 1700’s by pioneers who considered it a staple as a medicine. They grew, harvested and sold catnip as a cash crop. But it jumped the boundaries set, and was soon seeding itself across America.
Thankfully, people had an affinity for it. The United States Pharmacopeia recognized it as a naturalized medicine in the 1800’s. And it was, and still is, a widely used plant in landscapes and gardens.
According to the book titled The Names of Plants by D. Gledhill, the name, Nepeta cataria, is derived from place and animal. Nepi, Italy was an Ancient city where catnip grew in great abundance. Nepeta is in reference to that city, and was a name Pliny, the great Roman naturalist and writer who lived from 23-79 A.D., first coined. Cataria is Latin for “of cats”.
Catnip has a taste that is pungent and acrid bitter, meaning its bitterness gives a little shiver as it releases tension in the nervous system. It also contains a good deal of resins, helping it moisten dry mucous membranes.
Catnip has its most potent effects and affinity for the nervous system, digestive system, uterus and respiratory tract. The energetic actions it has on these systems are anti-spasmodic, carminative, relaxant, diaphoretic, and mild sedative.
In the digestive tract, catnip is indicated for Irritable Bowel Syndrome, colic and nervous nausea. It is an especially supportive therapy here because of its ability to relax nerves and muscles. It is my experience that people who are very tense and anxious can hold their emotions in their stomach. This causes wind/gas and tension, or constriction. Catnip is carminative, therefore relieving wind, while relaxing muscles and nerves. For a secondary effect, it’s bitter properties can mildly stimulate gastric secretions and the liver, thereby improving digestion.
I have a few sample formulas for digestion that include catnip. One is a well known combination that has been historically indicated for colic in infants and older children alike. It is a tincture of equal parts catnip and fennel. I like to add yellow dock root tincture for toddler age and older if there is a serious inability to digest proteins and fats, absorb iron, or the child/adult suffers from jaundice.
Catnip and chamomile are also a nice combination for digestive woes that I use often. Chamomile is a powerhouse in the gut. It has the same properties as catnip, plus the ability to heal mucous membranes from damage, act as an anti-inflammatory and protect from ulcers. When used with probiotics, it enhances their effects, helping to reestablish the balance of bowel flora more quickly.
The combination of catnip and chamomile also benefits those with mild insomnia. I have not witnessed it to be effective for chronic and extreme cases of sleeplessness. But if someone is going through stressful times, a dropper full or two of this tincture combo can help them get to sleep. (Notice I said tincture. I don’t recommend teas before bed. Especially teas that are diuretic, like these two.)
Catnip has a history of use for headaches. I have found it best suited for nervous hot headaches where decreased digestive function and tension are commonly experienced. There is a tightness and anxiousness associated with constriction in the individual. Catnip, being a cooling acrid bitter, relieves the head, and will also have positive effects on liver heat with deficiency, which can be a root cause of headaches as well.
Not everyone uses catnip for the respiratory tract, but I do. I find a place for most mints in treating coughs, applying them for different reasons. I use catnip as an anti-spasmodic to manage coughs in many formulas from bronchitis to general colds. And it serves dual purposes in supporting illness, because it is also a diaphoretic (agent used to manage a fever). Interestingly, it induces sweating by cooling, not heating and stimulating.
One of my favorite fever/flu teas is linden, yarrow and catnip with a hint of honey. I usually combine it with a bit of blue vervain tincture on the side if the fever is high and spiking (not in the tea).
If you need further support for the lungs, catnip can be used with ginger and/or thyme tea, and garlic syrup. For extremely dry coughs, add plantain or marshmallow root tea.
Harvesting for Tea
Harvesting and making your own medicine is fun and easy once you get the hang of it. You save money, and build a relationship with plants you will use for therapy.
To make the medicine, you first have to grow it, which is easy. Catnip pretty much takes care of itself. But for further information on herb gardening, you can view an article I wrote years ago on my website, www.redrootmountain.com, titled Grow Your Own Medicines.
To harvest catnip for tea or tincture, take the top 6 inches just after the flowers open. It is often written in old texts, though I don’t recall exactly which ones, to harvest when the sun is high.
To use for tea, hang the plant in bunches in a cool dry place until sufficiently dry. The amount of time it takes to dry is dependent on climate. If it is a wet time of year, it will take longer.
Once drying has occurred, de-stem the leaves and flowers, and store the herb in a glass jar away from direct light for future use. Label and date the jar. It will keep for around a year.
For a cup of tea, use about 1-2 teaspoons per cup of hot water steeped 3-5 minutes. Never boil this plant. It is sensitive to heat, and boiling it will destroy the oils that make it medicinal. Pouring hot water over it is okay, though.
Making a Fresh Plant Tincture
To make a fresh plant tincture, you will need: a mason jar of appropriate size, some pure grain alcohol, a kitchen scale, cheese cloth, and an amber brown bottle of the appropriate size for post pressing.
This is a quick way to tincture. It can be more complex, but I find this makes a good strong tincture that can be given in minute doses (5 drops 3-4 times daily) or larger ones (25 drops 3 times daily) with great medicinal effect.
I do have a few personal rules for tincturing. Always use the highest percent alcohol possible for fresh plant tinctures. No vodka, please. Weigh and measure. A measured product delivers measurable results.
1. Prepare the plant material. Harvest the top 6 inches just after the flowers open. Allow to bask in the sun on a sheet for a bit. This makes the bugs fun off. Then, de-stem the catnip .
2. Weigh the plant material you have prepared, and measure out your alcohol accordingly. For this fresh plant tincture, you will need twice as much alcohol by volume as you have by weight of plant material. In other words, if you have 4 oz. of fresh plant by weight, you will need 8 oz. of pure grain alcohol by volume. On your label you will note this as 1:2 (1 part plant to 2 parts alcohol).
3. Stuff the jar full of the herb.
4. Add the alcohol. Be sure to press and mix out any air bubbles. Once done (this part will be work) press the plant down firmly below the level of the alcohol.
5. Store in a cool dry place, and shake daily.
6. After 6-8 weeks you may press the alcohol out through cheese cloth. If you have a tincture press, even better.
7. Store in the amber brown bottle out of direct sunlight. Label with the date, name of the plant, part of plant used, fresh or dry plant tincture, and part of plant to alcohol. An example is: 3/11, fresh plant tincture of Nepeta cataria (catnip), de-stemmed flowering tops, 1:2.
The mint family has many powerful healers in it. Catnip, motherwort, lemon balm, peppermint and skullcap are just a few of my favorites. And I don’t know what we would do in our household without them, or in my practice. Each has its unique way of expressing similar things, from their taste, to the actions they take to the organ systems they find affinity for.
These mints all grow in my yard and make themselves known in early spring. This year, though, it is catnip that made the strongest showing. Catnip is the one that is most playful and light. It reminds us that relaxing and having fun is a natural part of life’s rhythm. I’m going to make a concerted effort to remember this, despite life’s stresses. And I hope you all make a cup of catnip tea and remember, too . Warm, bright Spring wishes to you!