This spring I decided to grow some catnip in our herb garden. We had bought some terracotta drainpipes from Craigslist and used them as bottomless pots to house some of our more invasive plants. We had a few vacancies, so I bought some small catnip starters and planted them in some of the higher pipes. By the next morning, the plants had been uprooted, stripped of most of their leaves and left in a wild state on our lawn. I ended up having to wrap the pipes with chicken wire, creating a protective cage around the now half-dead catnip plants. This worked, but as soon as leaves grew outside the cage, they were eaten. Eventually, the catnip outgrew the cats’ appetites and we now have some delicious, healthy plants.
A few years ago we had a pretty healthy plant that had escaped from its container and took up residence in a patch by our front door. Catnip, like other members of the mint family, quickly took over and grew among the stones in our front walkway. Every fall I cut it back to the ground and every spring the cats would roll around where the smallest new leaves started to appear.
What’s up with this plant that drives cats crazy?
Nepeta cataria (catnip) produces several volatile compounds that attract pollinators or repel pests. One of these compounds, nepetalactone, is responsible for the psychotropic effects of catnip. Nepetalactone affects cats only through their sense of smell, not through absorption (although they like to gnaw the leaves). The effect is similar to sex pheromones, which explains the writhing, rolling, and general silliness that cats exhibit under its influence.
Unfortunately, not every cat likes catnip. Only 70-80% of domestic cats are sensitive to it. Younger kittens are not affected, probably because the receptors become active at sexual maturity.
Catnip, closely related to catnip, is a delightful, flowering ground cover. Although it is a member of the mint family, it does not spread as rampantly as most other mints. The leaves resemble those of catnip, but are much smaller, and she has beautiful purple flowers all summer long. It only reaches about a foot in height, and spreads to about 3 feet in width. It looks good next to yellow coreopsis or bright pink salvia. It is attractive to cats, but not too attractive. My cats like to take a nap in it, but they don’t tear it apart. Except for the occasional cat-sized dent, it stays in shape. If you’re looking for a landscape plant that behaves well and won’t be ravaged by the neighborhood cats, catnip is a good choice.
Have questions? E-mail [email protected].
Looking for more gardening tips? Here’s how to contact the Master Gardener program in your area.
Los Angeles County
San Bernardino County