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Nepeta cataria

Origin: Eurasia

Improvement status: Cultivated wild material

Seeds per packet: ~200


Life cycle: Perennial

Catnip has become so ubiquitous — both in pet stores and as a naturalized plant in landscapes across North America — it's easy to forget what a remarkable plant this mint-family perennial is. Pollinators love the inconspicuous little white flowers, while it's a natural repellant to mosquitos. It has a long history of medicinal use and many people still drink catnip tea for its relaxing, sedative effects. It has also been used for cramps, indigestion, fever, and hives.

But, of course, catnip is most remarkable for its effects on cats. Indeed, it's not simply a matter of cats liking the smell or taste of the stuff: it's scientifically demonstrable that catnip has very particular effects on the behavior of about two thirds of all cats! And it's not just domestic cats, but wild cats including lynxes, cougars, and leopards. These cats are genetically predisposed to be attracted to catnip. They are compelled to rub themselves on it, lick it, paw at it, and/or chew it. Once they consume it, it can have a similar effect as it has on humans (including sleepiness). Interestingly, for the third of cats that are not attracted to catnip, certain other plants cause the same effect (including valerian, silver vine, and Tatarian honeysuckle). A recent scientific study hypothesized that this behavior evolved due to catnip's mosquito-repelling nature: cats that like catnip are less likely to contract mosquito-born diseases. In any case, catnip is a special plant — and we'll probably continue learning more about just how special it is.

GROWING TIPS: Slow, erratic germination ranging between 14-40 days. Don't give up on it. Either seed indoors in March and keep at 60 degrees, then transplant out in May. Or direct sow outside in late April or May.